Thursday, July 13, 2017

Composite Characters: Do They Have a Place in Creative Nonfiction?

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

It was a familiar situation, a mix of writers—some fiction, some nonfiction—coming together for their monthly critique meeting. Michelle was working on a nonfiction submission. She felt she had included too many characters for such a short piece and asked the group what to do.

Sitting across the table, Elizabeth, a solid fiction writer, saw no problem. “Just combine the characters.”

I yelped. “You can’t do that. That’s not a real person.”

Several startled faces turned toward me. Perhaps I’d overreacted. I realized they hadn’t wrestled with the issues that blur the line between fiction and creative nonfiction. Issues that become increasingly more important in these days when truth is subjected to individual interpretation, when people are photo-shopped in and out of history-making moments, and when anyone with half a thought and a computer can make a video or publish a book.

Although many reputable creative nonfiction writers have no problem using composite characters, it raises more questions than it answers. How creative can you be and remain true to the nonfiction expectations of your reader?

The simple answer would seem to be: Just tell the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth—at which point I hear that famous question, “What is truth?” Without a doubt, the Bible addresses truth concerning God and man. But the lines in nonfiction storytelling aren’t as clear. Take memoir, for example.

Some writers will not write memoir if they can’t be 100% sure of every detail.
Did it rain that day? Did I wear the blue shirt or the white one? Did I say that or did my brother?  

Others writers, more sympathetic with the vagaries of memory, look for what they call the emotional truth. How did they feel about the remembered experience? How do they interpret what it means to them now? Do the insignificant details matter as long as the important facts are certain?

After all, they contend, the goal is to take material from actual events, as far as can be remembered or verified, and extract meaning that transcends the personal and touches the universal.

Although there is a measure of forgiveness with memoir, other types of nonfiction involving public events or figures require scrupulous research and verification. With the availability of Google Earth maps and fingertip information, facts that can be verified, should be verified. Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) was so conscientious, she checked to make sure the tree Henrietta Lacks’s husband said he parked under decades earlier was actually there.

It’s easy to get caught up in your story and inadvertently embellish or overlook a point. But to fabricate people, places, or events that didn’t exist, or to mislead your reader intentionally for the sake of crafting a more dramatic story is not being creative. It is being deceptive. Unfortunately, there are many famous, award-winning authors in that notorious line-up.

The issue of Composite Characters that my critique group encountered is one of particular concern to the creative nonfiction writer.

A composite character is a single person created from a combination of personalities and traits of several others. Proponents say composites are just another tool of the craft—a way to enhance and simplify your story. Writers use composites to protect the identities of the people they are writing about. President Obama acknowledged the New York girlfriend in his Dreams from My Father was a composite—a person crafted to respect the privacy of the girlfriends.

When questioned, Nobel Laureate Rigoberta MenchĂș admitted that some of the people and events she wrote about in exposing the atrocities of the Guatemalan war were actually representative composites. However noble her intention in bringing a horrific situation to light, her credibility was damaged.

Some nonfiction writers include such sweeping disclosures about the changed names, places, and events that it is difficult to know which parts are true and which are fabricated. Nevertheless, readers tend to be more accepting of detail changes if they have been forewarned.

The creative nonfiction writer faces other challenges—how to include dialogue, how to compress time, how to fill in the parts of someone’s life that he or she has no way of knowing about—but the issue of composite characters looms large.

What do you think? Does a character that is put together like Mrs. Potato Head cross the nonfiction line?


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Like you, Marcia, I believe a creative nonfiction writer should pen on the razor's edge of truth instead of sewing together a Frankenstein composite that destroys the importance of each contributing character.

    Nevertheless, a stewing pot full of characters can destroy the desired flavor. To manny characters can lead both a cook and a writer to choose what their aspiration real is to be served -- creativity with truth or a compound of imagination.

    Teach on!

    1. So true Carolyn. Hard decisions, but usually there is a way to find what's really important without compromising your integrity.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Amy. Lots to think about when writing about others.

  3. I think if you clearly state what you are doing you won't lose credibility. In my memoir I'm changing some names, and I saw a slew of therapists, I picked four prominent ones, and some of the dialogue may have come from other therapists in my history. I'm debating changing some of my living family members' information to protect their privacy.

  4. Yes, I agree that letting your reader know what you've done is important to maintain credibility, even if you change things.