Monday, May 29, 2017

A Real Character

This TeachingAuthors series is about creating characters.  I don’t create characters in the way most people think.  When most hear the word “character” they probably think of a fictional character.  Since I’m an author who writes nonfiction, my characters are real people.  I can’t change their character or create any facet of their true character.  But that doesn’t mean writing about real people isn’t creative-it is.  It takes a lot of creativity to breath life into sometimes dry and boring facts. 

I’ve always said, “I don’t create the facts, but I use the facts creatively.” 

In my biographies I show the character of real people though the details and quotes that illustrate who they are. Let me show you what I mean…

In The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon I wanted to show the tender side of Washington and the love he had for his wife, Martha.  I used part of a letter he wrote her in 1775 where he is telling her that he has been chosen the lead the Continental Army and would not be coming home as expected.  Instead he is going directly to Cambridge, MA, to take command. 

He wrote that he would “feel no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign—My unhappiness will flow, from the uneasiness I know you will feel at being left alone.”

Letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775

In my book Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium I showed Curie’s character, not through a quote but by describing something she wanted to accomplish.  When Marie and Pierre Curie first married, Marie wanted to learn to cook.  She asked her sister’s mother-in-law to teach her. 

About this I wrote, “Marie approached cooking as if it were a scientific experiment.  She made careful notes in the margins of her cookbooks about the successes and failures of her attempts.” 

In my book In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, I showed a glimpse into Fry’s character and the high pressure situation he was in as he waited for some refugees he was helping.  The situation was tense as he was waiting to make sure the refugees he put on the train in France had arrived safely across the border in Spain.  They were all crossing the border illegally and would have been arrested if caught.  Varian went to the guard shack to ask if his friends had arrived. 

I wrote, “The guards led Varian into the guard shack and told him to wait.  As Varian sat there he wondered where his protégés were.  He also wondered if he was gong to be arrested.  He smoked one cigarette after another.” 

I don’t manipulate facts about the lives of real people.  But I can choose the right details to show their character.  

Carla Killough McClafferty

1 comment:

Carmela Martino said...

I'm late in responding, but I love this post, Carla. Thanks for sharing your process for revealing the character of real people.