An interview with the literary website LitNet last week, brings me to the second of my writing tips thanks to a reader. I was asked by LitNet’s Naomi Meyer how writing non-fiction stories differed from fiction.
My response was: “With non-fiction, as you know, you are tethered to what happened. However, non-fiction narrative has come a long way and nowadays uses many devices and techniques which are common to the novel.”
“Such as?” asked the reader.
Good question. And the answer has as much to do with creating characters for a novel as for a memoir or a biography or an historical account.
The character in place
The LitNet interview was about my role as editor of spymaster Moe Shaik’s The ANC Spy Bible. Shaik was both the author and the major “character” in the memoir. So how we see him right in the beginning is important. He needs us to trust him both as the writer and the protagonist.
Which is why the story opens with Shaik alone in his flat being used as a decoy to fool the Security Branch. It’s a suspenseful scene and it grabs the reader’s attention. Shaik knows they are coming for him, and he knows he has to let them arrest him. For hours he stands at the window watching the dark street. He chain smokes. His heart is beating fast and he is “wracked with anxiety and fear”.
The writing style is clean and unadorned. There are very few adjectives and no adverbs to bog down the flow of the sentences. This creates a tension that mirrors the tension of Shaik waiting for the inevitable. And the inevitable in his case means a jail cell, interrogation, torture.
It’s an instance of being alone against the world.
Out of the novel’s toolbox
Here’s the takeaway from Shaik’s opening pages, and the second of my writing tips: create in your mind that all important scene in which you are going to place your character. Bring the character onstage and start the action. Answering these seven questions will help you develop your character and the setting:
- Where is this taking place?
- When is this taking place?
- What is the character doing?
- What is happening to the character?
- What is the character’s emotional state?
- What does the character look like?
- How is the character dressed?
Whether your characters live in a fictional world or are real people in the real world you need to use the same approach when you put them on the page and get inside their heads: where are they and what are they doing?