Writer’s Corner: Composite Characters

By Keith Ecker

There is a common misconception that just because you are writing a work of nonfiction means you can’t take certain artistic liberties. Well, the truth is you can. This is your story, and you get to make the rules. And one of the most commonly used “fibs” in the essay biz is the use of composite characters.

A composite character is a character that represents an amalgamation of several real-life individuals. The purpose of composite characters is to simplify and streamline your story to increase audience comprehension and enhance your narrative. In this way, composite characters aren’t so much an untruth as they are a tool of the craft.

For example, let’s say I was writing a story about the time I was bullied in sixth grade. And let’s say there were five bullies that used to pick on me. Well, perhaps it would get a little confusing for the audience if I’m constantly throwing out different names to attribute the perpetrators’ actions. How eloquent is it to say:

Mike, whose hair resembled a flickering flame, raised his fist and said, “I’m going to pound you in the mouth.” And then Johnny, whose freckled face smiled maniacally, chimed in, “Yeah. Get him, Mike.” Jeff and Todd stood in the background, egging Mike on. And then Greg, who had the toothpick legs of a chicken, sprinted up to me and pushed me to the ground.

There’s a lot of name soup going on. What purpose do all these characters serve? What difference does it make if there were five or three bullies? In most circumstances, not much. So why not combine Jeff, Todd and Johnny into one character who eggs Mike on to kick my butt? I don’t want to necessarily eliminate Greg because he plays a critical role in this story on his own, specifically pushing me to the ground. But the other three really are redundant.

If you are writing a memoir, it is important to include within the introduction to your book that you have used the artistic license to combine characters. You don’t want a James Fray incident on your hands. But don’t worry about sticking to the cold, hard truth. Essay writing is every bit as much of a literary pursuit as fiction writing. It must adhere to the truth, but it’s not strict journalism. Playing with reality is your right.

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