“To develop a character—whether a kid whose trip to the wrong place triggered social change or an important historical figure—we do two things: explore the subject’s complexity, and present that complexity through a series of revelations”
– Stanley Nelson
The learning objectives for this chapter are as follows:
- To develop a better understanding of the character profile and the function of character as a literary technique in narrative journalism.
- To appreciate the difference between “showing” and “telling,” while developing a deeper understanding of when and how to use the techniques.
While chapter 3 went into detail about how we describe the element of “character,” there is still the matter of how we use it in narrative journalism. For me, the best investigation of this element is through the character sketch or character profile. The character profile is one of the most common and compelling forms of narrative journalism, and it should be no surprise, as human subjects are inherently interesting to us as humans.
Some of the best character profiles I’ve ever come across, which are really character profile vignettes, are artfully curated and crafted by photographer, Brandon Stanton, in his Humans of New York series.
Brandon began his project photographing random strangers on the streets of New York, and posting these portraits with a short quote or two. The underlying concept: All humans have a story to tell. This concept developed into what is now an international blog with numerous bestselling books.
The reason I find these character profiles so compelling and instructive is that they rely entirely on the element of character. These profiles are minimalistic: originally, they contained a single image and a quote from the subject. That was all. All of the human subjects were encapsulated in the following: physical features, surrounding, content of the quote, and manner of speaking. This is the epitome of “showing” as a narrative device.
Showing vs. Telling
The beauty of the “Humans of New York” form lies in its reliance on “showing” instead of “telling.” While the photographer chooses the photo and the quote to include, the subject is clearly and plainly presented. And yet we come away with this deep and profound understanding of who these people are, their “essence,” and we come away with a deeper connection to our shared humanity.
Let’s take a look at a couple of student examples:
23 January 2021
While Matt simply presents an image and quote from the story subject, not only do we understand what motivates this story subject, but we also get some backstory, and we come away feeling a connection to the story subject. This is effective storytelling.
“With baking, there’s a lot of science to it. In America, they don’t do this enough, but you’re technically supposed to go by weight. When we made the dough here, everything was weighed. When I first started, it used to be by cups, and that’s more of a volume kind of thing. And let me tell you, that’s very inconsistent because how you scoop up flour can affect your end product. So, I switched over to weight, and I felt it’s a lot easier, too, because now when I develop a new cookie recipe, I can just decrease the weight—the grams of flour—and up something else. There has to be a balance between your dry ingredients and wet ingredients, too.”
While Zeena presents the story subject almost matter-of-factly with this quote about baking, there is much more communicated through this short profile. There is an allusion to personal history, and there is humor and passion tucked neatly within the quote. Like in the previous example, we come away feeling connected to this story subject.
In both examples, there is no commentary from the authors of the text, and so, the only techniques available are to “show,” and to show exclusively through your story subject—their physical attributes, their facial expressions, their fashion, their environment, their words, their manner of speaking. This is a lesson in purely “showing” your story subject. Concrete detail, rich description, scene, and dialogue are all terrific techniques used in order to “show” your story subject in longer pieces of narrative journalism.
With all of the focus on “showing,” this is not to say that the technique of “telling” should be avoided, because it too has its place within narrative journalism. At times “telling” can get us from point A to B, while “showing” should be used to fully immerse us in character and scene. When considering how much “telling” to include, we must be discerning with amount, as too much of it can feel overbearing and patronizing to your reader.
A traditional character sketch or profile should achieve the same result as a Humans of New York profile. However, the narrative journalist has more time and opportunity to “show” their subject. Considerations of angle and scope will come into play (see chapter 4), but more than that, the narrative journalist must decide just how to show their subject (and what balance of “telling” might be required). How do we tap into someone’s essence? Yes, physical attributes and fashion and visual cues are very telling about a person. Behavior, mannerisms, ways of speaking, are also very telling. A person’s relationships, their backstory, their interests, passions, talents, etc., they all matter and mean something about who a person is. So what does a narrative journalist choose?
Character Profiles are not biographies, and the more backstory and history you try to pack into a profile, often the more distance we feel from the subject. Conversely, the smaller the narrative scope of the profile, the more focused our “viewing” of the subject is, often the sharper that focus is. And the effect of this is the story subjects come to life off of the page, as the following student examples illustrate:
27 January 2021
The Software Developer with No Degree
Raymond had an interest in video game development since the eighth grade. He would race home from school, eager to open up Blender, and begin crafting 3D models of weapons and characters with the television on silent in the background. As a child he took great pleasure in playing a variety of games, from platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog, action like Grand Theft Auto, and almost the entire Call of Duty franchise, so developing games seemed like the next best thing. He even planned on attending college for 3D modeling and design so that one day, he could see his titles on the store shelves. However, Raymond’s dream of creating his childhood delicacies for the masses came to a screeching halt as he asked himself “How will these characters know to move?” An answer he would find in the field of software development.
You see, video game characters cannot move without code, and coding was an exercise that intrigued Raymond. His new favorite hobby in high school was to open up Visual Studio, and create basic programs and websites, of course, with the television on silent in the background. He enjoyed solving technical problems, so much so that he even said “I liked just being able to type something out on a screen, and then watch it do as I expected,” as if he was a master of the trade. One could say that Raymond bit off a bit more than he could chew, as after he graduated from high school, he attended College of Creative Studies (CCS) to get his hands dirty in another skill, graphic design.
While he intended to learn another skill to be versatile in the job market, Raymond found his stay at CCS to be bland and unfulfilling. He created posters, critiqued typography, and made flyers. Although he knew his efforts were solving problems, he wasn’t solving the technical problems that he had a passion for. Not to mention, CCS was expensive, costing $25,000 annually for tuition and housing. He may have had a scholarship to go there, but from every angle, Raymond could tell that path he’d chosen wasn’t worth the money. And so, humbled by his own ambitions, he came back home, got a part-time job at Chipotle, and resumed coding.
Despite the fact that Raymond was not in a position to return to school, he never thought that lacking a college degree would prevent him from getting a job in software development. “Quite frankly we’re living in a time where more fields are being considered as trades and employers are worried about moving fast and just hiring the right person to get the job done. [This] took a great deal of stress off of me when I decided to [take] the route that I did.”
Nevertheless, Raymond spent the majority of his free time building a portfolio that would allow him to stand out from his collegiate peers. Over the span of nine months, he taught himself to code, and created a variety of websites (which utilized relevant technologies, and demonstrated his knowledge of data structures and algorithms). At one point, Raymond even considered traveling down to Utah to enroll in DevMountain, just to gain some type of certificate, but due to his wealth of knowledge in the subject, the teaching assistant denied him access to the bootcamp.
While Raymond exhibited the technical skills necessary to get a job as a software developer, interpersonal skills were just as important, and his past experiences lent a hand establishing those. During Raymond’s time at Chipotle, he was promoted from a team member to a kitchen manager, which improved his leadership skills. “Once I became a kitchen manager, I learned how to work under pressure, and how to mentor my peers. In software development, being able to communicate why one solution is better in the long term than another is a key skill to have.” Additionally, Raymond’s various jobs as a landscaper helped him to serve customers in the best, and most efficient way possible. “When you’re coding, you’re not only considering application speed, but also trying to ensure that the client gets the most functionality out of your program.”
With a combination of technical and soft skills, the only thing Raymond had to do was get an interview. After traveling to multiple networking events, and getting in touch with several hiring managers, he finally received a call from Red Ventures Detroit. Due to his outstanding portfolio of work, and his desirable interpersonal nature, Raymond was hired on as a software developer with a starting salary of $85,000. At last, he acquired his dream job.
In his new position, Raymond gets satisfaction from the instant feedback he gets while building applications. He can solve complex problems in a few keystrokes, without having to carry the intense weight that similar engineers face on a daily basis. “On a bad day, I can afford to be messy where other types of engineers can’t. I have the luxury to just mash random buttons into my terminal, and run test cases against a set of sample data to see if I get the expected outcome.” However, Raymond understands that there is great responsibility required when completing his job, as he deals with sensitive customer information. “There’s a great deal of trust [the customer] is making with our company and that trust is not meant to be broken.”
Upon inquiring if there was anything Raymond would have done differently, he said no. He still wishes to pursue a degree in Computer Science, just to have the knowledge. However, Raymond emphasized the importance of specializing in one thing, and being the best at it. He says, “Instead of being a jack-of-all-trades, master of nothing, you should take one skill that you enjoy, master it, and that will propel you in your career.” Following this advice is what got him as far as he has today.
Currently, Raymond works at StockX, ensuring that people are able to get their hands on sought after goods that are authentically verified.
Matt paints a broader, more detailed picture of the story subject in this traditional character profile, and he relies on a balance of “showing” and “telling.” The entire framework of the profile utilizes “telling” and summary as Matt touches on some major points in Raymond’s life, but this interspersed with direct quotes brings us into the narrative, as well as bringing Raymond to life on the page.
The next example by Zeena Whayeb takes a slightly different approach:
01 February 2021
Sara Treats You Batter
I entered the small bakery. A caramel latte scent diffused from a short cylindrical candle into the warm, cozy shop; the soft ambiance complemented the sweetness in the air. An aesthetic arrangement of cookies lined the counter, from the famous s’mores to the classic chocolate chip. I glanced to my left and was met with the large painted sign of the Detroit skyline atop a cookie. Above this logo were the words “Treat You Batter,” a clever play on words Sara came up with from the Shawn Mendez song, “Treat You Better.”
I met Sara’s oldest brother, Mohammed, behind the cash register and ordered their newest drink: the iced mocha latte. Sara then entered through the back double doors and stood behind the curved glass counter, wearing her blue mask. Her floral hijab wrapped around her head neatly, and her eyes happily greeted me as she immediately went to make the iced coffee.
“I want you to tell me your honest opinion,” she requested as she began mixing and pouring. Her second older brother, Ali, then came to help make the coffee, while she took a new customer’s order. “I told her to tell us her honest feedback,” she said to her brother as she moved away. Ali nodded in understanding and finished preparing the drink. After handing it to me, the pair of siblings watched me carefully as I took a sip. The flow of the iced coffee, with a tinge of bitterness and sweetness, made me sigh happily.
“It’s really good,” I reported honestly. “I like it better than the caramel one.”
“Would you say it needs more sugar? My friend tasted it yesterday and told me to make it sweeter,” Ali said with uncertainty.
“No, no, I think it’s good.”
The siblings then spoke hastily about whether they should add more sugar. Sara and I seemed to like the way it was, but her brother was the perfectionist of the family. Sara told me that he spent a month perfecting their cuban latte drink.
“But you can taste the coffee,” Ali said, still unsure. Sara immediately reminded, “But it’s an iced coffee . You’re supposed to taste it.”
“People don’t really like that,” he shrugged.
“There are those who do.” Sara countered, and I nodded, sipping the coffee happily under my mask.
A few weeks ago, I was introduced to the bakery’s chocolate chip cookies. From then on, I became their regular customer. The business has been growing in popularity, and they’ve received coverage from multiple media stations. One morning, I took the opportunity to sit down with Sara and learn more about her and her family’s business. She was reluctant to tell me about herself because she felt her older brother, Ali, had more of a story to tell. However, I assured her that she had one to tell, as well.
Sara, a Muslim woman in her late 20s, has always liked baking, and she always sought new recipes to try. Soon, she began to make her own recipes. She explains, “I remember always trying to figure out a really good chocolate chip recipe. I tried a bunch [of times] with brown butter, soft butter, whatever butter. Then, I found one that was closest to what I wanted it to be.” Her younger brother, Abdullah, shared the idea of selling their cookies on Instagram. When the demand for their cookies continued to grow, the four siblings found it difficult to bake and carry out the orders in their small kitchen. This is when they took the grand step to open up their own bakery.
However, this was no easy decision for Sara. At the time, she had been working at Volkswagen for six years, and she was definitely no risk-taker, describing herself as “a play-it-safe, stay-in-my-lane person.” The decision did eventually become clear when she noticed herself losing motivation, forcing her to contemplate if the corporate life was truly for her. “I like to say that I went through some type of quarter life crisis,” she reminisces. “I really loved [working there] initially because it’s a great place to work, but when you work corporate, your goal is to be promoted or find a better job and eventually work towards retirement. During my fourth year, I was getting very lethargic with the work, and for me, I feel really guilty if I’m not motivated to do something.” She realized she will not be able to continue this type of work until her senior years, explaining that if this isn’t the life for her, then “what’s my purpose of just kind of doing it?”
After Sara was on board, the siblings began looking for several places, and they decided on a space Sara describes as a “white box,” meaning it was completely empty of any design or interior walls: “There was nothing here,” she says, gesturing to the wall separating the front from the kitchen. “You build these walls, and you design everything,” This complete control over the customization of the interior space attracted their attention, and they got the space.
Their excitement was immeasurable. However, the work necessary to open one’s business always turns out to be more than anticipated. Sara encountered a major issue merely a few days before the bakery’s grand opening: she couldn’t bake the cookies. “I’ve never used a commercial oven before,” Sara explains. “We got these trays that were basically almost end to end within the oven. A week before, I would test bake, and I kept testing every day. Every time, the cookies look fine from the outside, but when you break it open, it’s straight raw.” Anxiety settled uncomfortably on the siblings as they tried to figure out the problem. Their main baker, Sara, was at a total loss. Having little time left, they pondered if they should make the cookies at home and then drive them to the shop. However, this idea was quickly dismissed; it simply wasn’t feasible.
Sara began researching extensively and stumbled upon a forum that instructed them to use a smaller pan. Having tried everything else, she immediately gave it a try. “The initial tray was too large. So, the circulation of the heat in the oven was not evenly distributed. When we used the half sheet trays, it worked!”
Having overcome this obstacle, Sara and her three brothers finally opened the bakery in early March—a couple of days before COVID-19 caused a lockdown order in Michigan. The rising concern of the pandemic did not deter the siblings from trudging forward. Sara referenced her brother’s words, “My brother said when you go into business, you expect a lot of things, you have to set yourself up for failure and disappointment.” She then continues jokingly, “But you set yourself up for a lot of things, you just never expected a pandemic to hit…”
The family noticed the gradual decline of their customers, and when the cases surged, they closed their storefront. Instead, they focused on deliveries. Weeks later, they changed to curbside pickup. Weeks after that, they opened the storefront back up. However, Sara explains that those weeks after the opening were crucial to building a customer base and utilizing the hype from the community. Because the initial hype was cut short, building a customer base and spreading the word took longer than it usually would. “It’s fine, though,” Sara says, showing her resilience, “We’ve learned a lot through the process, and adapting is the biggest thing.”
Maintaining the bakery has been a lot of work, and Sara admits to me that it can sometimes be exhausting. However, she finds it very fulfilling and expresses her joy at working with her family: “I think it’s easier for sure to work with family. When there are any arguments, you can be more straight up about things.” In the bakery, Sara takes on the baking portion and most of the financial aspect, where she utilizes her math degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Though working at the bakery does take up most of her time, Sara enjoys certain hobbies outside of her work. Most notably, she loves to read—her favorite book is The Outsiders —and watch sports.
For the present, Sara wants to continue to develop and experiment with new menu items. She is currently working on cakes and other cookie recipes. In the future, she hopes to expand the bakery and possibly pursue a master’s degree in math.
Rather than tell us about the story subject, Zeena immediately immerses us in scene. Through the use of sensory detail, dialogue, and her presence within the narrative, we get to experience the bakery and Zeena’s interaction with Sara from the very beginning. This drives the narrative and the character profile. Like Matt, Zeena does rely on the technique of “telling” and summary when we get into the backstory of the story subject and her journey to where she is today. This combination and balance can be extremely effective.
Let’s take a look at one final student example, one that I’ve chosen because of the strategies of characterization:
Prof. Benjamin Wielechowski
22 Sept. 2019
Essence and Anguish
The interview has come to an end. I turn off the recorder and she slumps back in her chair, finally relaxed. She takes hold of her large, black-framed eyeglasses and with a smooth gesture of her slender, delicate hand adjusts them in a fashion that reminds me of a librarian. We pause and take in the sounds of bustle during the mid-day rush that shuffles past the modest coffeehouse. Things hadn’t gone smoothly. The coffeehouse had gotten crowded and noisy, the patio wasn’t much better, and I often failed to keep the conversation flowing. But it was over. I was no longer interviewing Madison; now I was catching up with an old colleague, Maddie. It is here, I’m told, once the notebook is closed and your subject is no longer nervously twisting the sleeve around her coffee cup, is where you’ve reached the center of the onion. This is where the best revelation, the inner truth often emerges. What would Maddie’s inner truth be?
“Do you see those two guys there?” she draws my attention to a pair of figures across the street. “The one with the dreads does my piercings.” It’s clear that Maddie keeps her piercer busy since she had gauges in both ears and a septum piercing. She remarks that the tattoo shop where she gets her work done is nearby. I ask her how many tattoos she has, but she has lost count. She then points out her latest piece, a single word in bold, black ink poking through an exposed hole in her distressed jeans. It reads: ESSENCE. She tells me that it has a mate printed on her other leg: ANGUISH, but it’s hidden beneath the denim. “It means that a person is born to be a certain way,” Maddie explains. A person’s essential traits, their defining characteristics are determined before their birth and the individual should adhere to that function to be satisfied.
“I was always considered a “college bound kid” in high school,” Maddie informs me. She attended Whitmer High School in Toledo. “Honors and AP classes, graduated ranked 12th in my class…” Good grades came naturally to her, as did athletics and friendships. She was also engaged in extracurricular activities as well. Maddie seemed tailor made to pursue higher learning both as a student and a teacher. This isn’t surprising given the fact that she came from a family that valued higher education; many of them were teachers, after all. Plato would probably argue that fate willed Maddie into being accepted into University of Toledo for a degree in secondary education and, given her pedigree, it would be hard to argue against him.
“Anguish is choice,” Maddie explains to me. “People are a balance of both.” She goes on to tell me about philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whom she discovered in an unorthodox way. Maddie laughs and says, “Man, I’m glad we aren’t recording this!” before confessing that she discovered Sartre because that was the stage name taken by her favorite adult actress, Charlotte Sartre. Sartre, the French philosopher and not the porn star, believed “being precedes essence”, or we create meaning; it is not assigned for us. Choice is anguish due to the implication that without a preordained existence, nothing is for certain. We are free and terrifyingly so.
Maddie had cried on orientation day, but she did not know why. After a semester at Toledo, she transferred to Michigan State and there she had the opportunity to teach. Instead of it being her calling, she struggled to find meaning in the work. She enjoyed it, but it did not allow her to be herself. Maddie was attempting to live up to the expectations that others had set instead of her own. As Sartre would describe it, she was living in ‘bad faith;’ caught between essence and anguish. Much to the consternation of those who knew Maddie best, she dropped out of school entirely.
“I think people find me intimidating, but I only say that because its what I’ve been told from a few people. I think of myself as very sheepish and easily skittish and don’t think I have much of a strong presence at all.” I can confirm that Maddie can be intimidating at first, judging from personal experience. On the other hand, I would argue she has a much stronger presence than she would have you believe. Being around Maddie, one tends to notice the heads turning in her direction. Tall and willowy with a fair complexion, Maddie invokes the image of ‘Hollywood Gothic’; something like Elizabeth Taylor-by-way-of-Morticia Adams. I’ve always known her to be meticulous about her appearance. It occurs to me during the interview that it’s a necessity; her appearance acts like a business card. It’s part of her profession. Today she is more casual, but I still get the sense that there is something deliberate in the way she pulls her raven-hued hair into a haphazard bun. After dropping out of MSU, Maddie enrolled into the Estheticians program. An esthetician performs cosmetic skin treatments including facials, hair removal, surface level massages and a plethora of similar treatments.
Maddie’s first exposure to esthetics came back at university when friends visited her in her dorm room to get their eyebrows waxed. She took an interest in skin care and beauty; helping others take better care of themselves keyed into her strong maternal instincts. “Finding a career field that challenges me as well as excites me was incredible,” she recalls. Prior to dropping out of school, however, she didn’t consider this passion to be a worthy profession. It took recognition of this passion from others to convince Maddie that learning to become an esthetician could be a valid career path. “Know thyself,” the Greek aphorism goes. Sartre would call it ‘living authentically.’ To do so, Maddie would have to reject the belief that her passion wasn’t serious enough. “There might not always be people that will take you seriously,” she explains, “but if you take yourself seriously others will follow suit.”
Maddie is in a period of flux, with many pieces of her life shifting. We speak at length about her concerns. She has a state licensing exam to take for esthetics, she might carry the same gene that caused her mother’s breast cancer, and she recently broke up with her girlfriend. On the upside, her older brother will be getting married soon. She is planning on taking David as her plus one to the wedding. David is Maddie’s best friend, perhaps more than that. She tells me that when looking at him she sees, “everything I want to be.” She confesses that part of her hopes to rekindle a past romance, but she has her trepidations. They had tried dating several times, each leading to failure. Most recently, things dissolved due to strong, opposing opinions they have developed over the time they had known each other. Opinions neither could acquiesce to the other. She pauses briefly when discussing this and stares at the table; brow furrowed. Her pained expression tells me she’s reliving a raw memory. I wish to console her, but she has no need for tired platitudes. Maddie is at a crossroads. She is not meant to be an esthetician, she is not meant to be with David. Essence is an illusion and all she has is the burden of choice that weighs upon her countenance. Anguish. But there is beauty to be found in anguish. Since nothing is pre-ordained, she is free to define her life; to live authentically.
Our meeting had ended. She collects her things, I tuck my notebook under my arm, we embrace briefly, I watch her walk away. I had known Maddie for over a year and for the past two hours she answered every question I thought to ask. However, I hadn’t really begun to understand her until she casually discussed her tattoos. In these brief moments, I feel as though I better understand myself, as well. I’m sad to see her go, but I’m thankful for the time we’ve shared. It’s okay to be sad. It means our time together had value. I’ve defined my truth and I know now where to find the truth behind Madison Reynolds. It resides in the space between essence and anguish.
Like the two previous examples, Patrick utilizes a balance of “showing” and “telling.” The attention to detail, the description, and the natural, compelling dialogue put us front and center in the story. The commentary and summary help us move throughout the profile and give the story subject more depth. The angle is communicated through repetition of ‘essence’ and ‘anguish,’ with the title and the symbol of the tattoos acting as very effective literary devices. The characterization and the structure of the profile are worth dwelling on. Patrick focuses on what might be considered mundane details, like how Maddie twists the sleeve around her coffee cup when she’s nervous, and within these details we learn a world about Maddie. The physical description and the exchange of dialogue are also extremely effective in bringing Maddie off of the page. Patrick also does something very clever here with the structure of the profile. Instead of organizing the profile around the interview, this profile begins at the end of the interview where we get to really “see” the story subject. The information gained through the interview is then revealed throughout in those moments of commentary. This has everything to do with narrative design, which will be discussed at length in Chapter 7.