This past month I have had the opportunity to read a biography written by one of my friends. As this bio was not her own, she had to do all kinds of interviews and research. Last night she was telling us all what she had to do/had done and I was 1.) impressed that she had done the quantity of work involved in that process and 2.) struck by the difficulties the non-fiction genres create.
Nowadays there's a certain trend in non-fiction to make it read like fiction--using all the techniques of fiction to create tension that's already happened, atmosphere that's long gone, and to bring characters who are dead to life. And in doing that, the non-fiction writer adds the extra hurdle of the story having to be, well, true. They can't just make it up (well, in some cases they can...). If you're writing about the Mayflower, or Gettysburg, or Abraham Lincoln then the audience is aware of certain factual occurences, which puts a restraint on how much you can do.
Having read this biography and taken a little while to think about it, here are some of the difficulties that non-fiction and fiction writing have in common:
1. First person narratives, whether they be fiction or non, are tricky because the person speaking must always be more observant/intuitive about the real world than normal. Otherwise the reader will think the narrator a selfish asshole. It's all me, me, me, all the time. (And while some of us are like that...not everyone wants to hear about it.)
2. There must be a climax. In a history narrative, you lead up to the main issue that will illustrate whatever it is your trying to say the best--for example, a narrative on the Civil War could end at Appomatox or the assassination of Lincoln or in any number of places, depending on what you're trying to express. In a memoir, you lead to the highest point of crisis that is resolved--Maya Angelou ends I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when she's still a very young woman (I won't tell you the end) because it's a turning point in her life. A work of fiction must do the same thing, only the writer gets to make up what the climatic point is.
3. An initiating event. You must go from point A to point B. We just talked about the climax. The beginning however--how long is the non-fiction narrative going to last? In a biography do you start with the historical figure's birth? Their first memory? The landing on Plymouth Rock to the 1960s? Like a novel, in non-fiction you have to pick your timeline--it helps determine the level of tension and how that tension will be used.
4. Characterization. Here's a punch in the gut: even with journals and articles and photos and portraits, the historical creation in a non-fiction piece will always, always be just as made up and influenced by the writer of the piece as a fictional character. Why? Because as much as we think we know a person, even ones we live with, let alone ones who have been dead for years or centuries, we just don't know some things. We don't know the conversations that were overheard, or the little bits of food that they tasted, or how itchy a certain pair of undershorts were. People just don't write about those things in their diaries. Sure, you may know they went to jail or that they died drunk in a gutter, but you don't know what was in their minds when that happened--because odds are the character/person didn't know himself. But the writer knows and must always know. Even if it's fake, the writer must know or the narrative, the story, will seem fake.