I came across a quote this morning from fiction writer Karen Luellen:
If you’re a writer, you’ll know it by the distinct feeling of only being able to breathe properly when alone with your characters. All other times, I’m panting – just pining for the next time I can be with them.
While I’m no writer of fiction, when looking through the thoughts of several writers of fiction I see parallels with writers of non-fiction. That said, as a non-fiction writer, I have a difficult time thinking about the ongoing creation of a fictional character. Frankly, it’s scary. There just seem to be far too many options/directions in which the character may go. Nonetheless, there are still similarities in the paths taken by the non-fiction writer while writing… constructing a personality from history. While our imagination isn’t the drive of creation (sifting through our minds to find out what our character will do next), we (the non-fiction writers) have to sift through resources to find the path of our character. It’s still a writer’s path of discovery. Generally, because most who write history are students of history, we think we know where things are going because of what we have read previously about a personality, but that’s not to say we won’t discover qualities, attributes, etc. in a person that bring around moments that surprise us. How often, when this happens, do we frantically turn to other biographies or histories to see if someone else made note of the same discovery/ies?
Without moving too far from Luellen’s quote…
Like writers of fiction, I think writers of non-fiction look equally to that opportunity to sit down, once again, with a character from history, to find out more about that person. It brings to mind the question, “If you could chose one person from history to sit down with for dinner and discussion, who would it be?” The fact is, every time a writer of non-fiction sits down to write they are in a virtual chat session with that historical character. For those who are regularly engaged in writing over a period of time (whether that be a biography or a book), I think there is an anticipation (much like that suggested by Luellen) within the writer, as he/she looks forward to the next opportunity to sit down and engage the character.
On the other hand, I think the non-fiction writer has to take care not to become enamored or… repulsed… with the character, as it will shine through in the writing. Not a good thing if the assessment they make is to be a balanced one.