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Roundtable Character in Nonfiction Introduction It has been noted that nonfiction, by its very name, defines itselfin terms ofits presumed opposite, even though for miUennia fiction has been frequently declared suspect, inferior to history, or to philosophical and scientific treatises—to any writing attempting to render the "actual." Nonetheless, we don't caU fiction "non-fiction" or "non-non-fiction." Its power is evident, if not wholly clear, and each damnation has been an homage as much as a speU against the aUure of unabashed imaginings. We need the "real" that fiction gives, but we also crave the "real real" of nonfiction. Remember those first EngUsh novels—Robinson Crusoe, among others—offering themselves to their publics as factual stories? And, ofcourse, at present more titles of nonfiction are pubUshed each year than novels and short stories. AU ofthis is to say that we have purposefuUy removed the seat on today's panel in which the token fiction writer would sit and respond to the frequently recurring assertion that fiction and nonfiction are pretty much the same. AU ofus here beUeve that there are significant differences between the two. And while much of what is said here today wfll reflect on that matter, we'd like to point the discussion elsewhere, specificaUy to the treatment and construction of character in nonfiction, in the hope ofmaking some tangible observations about the craft and art as it's practiced. Notes on Character in Nonfiction Donald Morrill 1 I've often heard fiction writers claim that at some crucial stage in the evolution of their books—when they sense the book is afive and working 169 170Fourth Genre weU—they don't know what their characters are going to do next. It seems that this is when their relationship to their characters most resembles the relationship of nonfictionists to the characters of which they write, since nonfiction characters are never reaUy under the nonfictionists' control and, hence, not reaUy "theirs." Even the "I" of which a memoirist writes can never be his like it can be a fiction writer's. We might say that nonfiction aspires to a god-like veracity, but it's fiction that makes of its creator a god. We know characters in fiction more intimately than in nonfiction, and they must reveal their secrets, perhaps in lieu of their mysteries. Otherwise, they're of little use to us. Excepting perhaps posthumous biography, characters in nonfiction don't exist just for our purposes—because they live. Despite any effort on the nonfictionists part, they exist outside the text in an unconsummated relationship with fate and meaning. They may be boring, but they are never "wrong" in an aesthetic sense ofthe term. Because a character in nonfiction exists mostly outside the narrative, we can only see him provisionaUy as a symbol—even ifhe's put himselfforward or is put forward for his theatrical value and symbol content—like the sports figure, the politician, the star. We're most fascinated by the part of the nonfiction character that is not just for our purposes, by what lies out of sight. Most of Ufe is a secret kept by banaUty The dirty secret is most often banality itself, but it encourages those apprised ofit—the readers—to beUeve that the rest of our secret Ufe is richer and more interesting. Character in nonfiction is shaped as much by an author's omissions as by action. The aUure ofnonfiction is the aUure of things and history. The Kennedy assassination—perhaps the most analyzed public event—is stiU, beyond its central details, a web of unanswerable questions and provisional interpretations . The same is true of character in nonfiction. We hear redundancy in the dinner guest's stories, because we know that unless he's lying, there's a finite pool of experience from which he draws. Roundtable: Character in Nonfiction171 We are hearing testimony and know there wiU be some slippage in it, some miscues, some invention and some deletions. . . . We know there wiU be more typical elements to a real person's character than to those ofa fictional character. Yet, we don't want to feel the story has been told too many times, becoming...


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