Creating Characters on the Page

A face peering through an empty space in an otherwise-completed jigsaw puzzle.

“There’s no better place to find characters than science,” Erik Vance says. He should know; he makes characters come alive on the page all the time. Vance, a freelance writer based in Mexico City, has covered a wilderness medic who is creating a nasal spray to buy time for snakebite victims, a whale biologist who specializes in cetacean autopsies, and a woman who spent her teenage years in a back brace and ponders the possibility of treating Parkinson’s patients using the placebo effect.

That makes Vance and other writers an invaluable resource for tips on creating a nonfiction character. How can a reporter best capture the details of a living, breathing person in the black-and-white of ink? Especially when that person is a scientist, whose stereotype is that of a boringly analytical character?


Caring about Character

Corey Powell, a New York-based writer and editor who specializes in space journalism, argues that character is critical for drawing a reader into a story. “If you’re trying to get non-scientists to understand what science is about, and why these abstract and theoretical fields that I often cover matter, you need to get under somebody’s skin,” he says.

Powell’s 2013 Discover piece on meteorite curator Carl Agee—“a man who touches the untouchable”—encapsulates this under-the-skin sentiment. The column reads like a fairytale about a man and a rock from space. Powell opens with his own conception of what it must be like to study, but never interact directly with, the geology of another planet. Then he pivots: “A conversation with Carl Agee quickly sets me straight.”

The rest of Powell’s column flies through the story of how Agee came into possession of a martian rock nicknamed Black Beauty. Agee puzzles over the rock at first, unable to make sense of it. Finally he matches it to the water-rich rocks that NASA rovers are exploring on the surface of Mars. It is a scientific detective story that notes, as Powell writes, “a lingering flutter of amazement” in Agee’s voice as he begins to think about the consequences of his work. Powell got all he needed for that piece in a single hour-long phone conversation with Agee, simply by paying attention to more than just the dry facts that the scientist presented.


Reporting for Character

The first step to fleshing out a character is to find one in the first place. For a 2014 Popular Science story on gene sequencing, New York-based writer Melinda Wenner Moyer knew she needed characters to explore the ramifications of gene-sequencing technologies. To help with sources, a PR representative from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City—fond of using triple exclamation points in emails!!!—put her in touch with several families whose newborns’ lives were saved or vastly improved by the technology. One of those families yielded the anecdote in the story’s lede, about two-month-old baby Kira Walker, whose gene sequencing helped save her from pancreatic failure.

But Moyer also needed sources for a section of the story about the controversial practice of using genetic information on embryos to select a baby of a particular sex. Eventually she located several online forums about sex selection and posted feelers asking if anyone would talk to her. She got just two responses, but that was enough: A New Jersey mother of two named Shannon Twisler spoke to Moyer for the story and described the controversial procedure she underwent as a “no-brainer.” (Twisler is expecting a baby girl in October.)

Moyer knew she needed to elicit details that would bring out her sources’ characters, which might be difficult when speaking to parents whose newborns were very sick. “My chief concern was making [sources] feel as comfortable as possible,” she says. At the start of each interview, to put them at ease, Moyer, who was also pregnant at the time, ran through her own personal story before asking questions.

When she did ask her sources about what brought them to Children’s Mercy and the drastic action of gene sequencing, she requested that they start at the “very very beginning.” She added, “Don’t worry about boring me.” She knew that long interviews can yield crucial details for a story, as small moments that might seem routine to one person aren’t to another. Mother-to-be Alexis Sturgeon told Moyer that she wanted to have her embryos screened for ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency—a rare genetic disorder than ran in the family. Her brother, who had inherited the disease, had to take up to 100 pills a day. But Sturgeon almost didn’t mention that tiny detail to Moyer. To her, it was a routine fact of life; to Moyer and to readers of the story, it perfectly captured the hassle of the disease.

Though some writers tend to feel awkward about asking personal questions, it’s sometimes easy get a source to open up: When Powell sat down to interview astronomer Sara Seager, “she started pouring out her life story,” he says. “In her own self-narrative, there is no dividing line between the personal and the professional.” He found himself triaging information for a Smithsonian profile that could have easily, he says, turned into “the loves and losses of Sara Seager.” Instead, Powell waited until more than halfway into the piece to bring up a defining event: the 2011 death of Seager’s husband—and kept details of other past traumas out of the story entirely.


Devil in the Details

Gathering as much character detail as possible during the course of reporting is vital to later building characters and revealing moments. For a column-length story, Powell says he often gathers up to five times as much material as the story can fit. Photographs, tape recorders, and other memory-jogging devices can help writers reconstruct relevant scenes after the fact. The point is to collect all the information and decide later what to keep in the story.

“You want to find details that help the reader understand the character as quickly as possible, and as thoroughly as possible,” says Vance. “Every scientist has a messy office.” That means a messy office is, generally, not a good detail to include to reveal character. (An extraordinarily neat office, however, could be.)

Vance looks for the small but telling detail that a friend of the character might notice. In a 2008 Nature story about the science of livestock poop, Vance described a sign in the scientists’ lab that “urges ‘good personal hygiene.’”  In a 2014 Discover piece about wilderness medic Matthew Lewin, he describes how Lewin once sealed an uninsured patient’s wound shut using hair so that the patient would not have to pay to have stitches removed. Such details reflect important information about how these people work.

Some people have parts of their personality and work ethic etched into their flesh. For a 2010 Discover story, Vance wrote about a wind-turbine-designing engineer who drank herbal smoothies and worked 18-hour days and was a “a tall man with the build of a gazelle.” (But be careful with physical details: “Skinny” isn’t an accurate shorthand for “productive” any more than “fat” is for “lazy.”)

In his Smithsonian profile of Seager, Powell found himself facing the question of how to describe her physically. He chose to include a line about how she was “dressed all in black except for a long red-and-pink scarf.”

“Now that she was becoming more famous, she had to adjust the way that she looked, and look more professional,” Powell says. “That was part of the story. There was no way around it.” He was, however, careful not to include too much detail on Seager’s appearance. “There’s a risk of fetishizing some element of the person that’s not relevant to who she is,” he says.

In the end, creating character is all about picking the details that matter. Vance notes that sources often “reveal stuff that’s not important to the story.” Reporters can get easily sidetracked on details, like past traumas or late-night work habits, that may or may not advance the narrative.  The question to ask, Vance says, is “is this going to help the reader understand the story? There’s no reason to bring this stuff out just because you can.”

Shannon Palus
Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a freelance writer and a fact checker for Discover and Popular Science. She recently earned an undergraduate degree in physics from McGill University. She is based in Philadelphia and New York. Follow her on Twitter @shanpalus.

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