Composite Characters

For some writers, a composite character—that is, the melding of two or more real people into one—crosses the line into fiction. Those coming from a journalist tradition in particular find the blurring of characters for whatever reason a violation of the factual base of nonfiction.

For others, however, composite figures make ethical and practical sense. If you are writing about the non-famous, particularly friends and family who did not ask to be in your story, they expect their confidences to remain confidential. Violating their trust might destroy your relationships with them. Yet you have a story to write, about what you observe and struggle with in the world and about the real people who struggle with you. What to do? Some avoid telling such stories as nonfiction. Others wait until the people involved have died. Still others publish somewhere that those involved won’t read…hopefully. Or they call it fiction and keep their fingers crossed.

Or they opt to write a composite character, particularly if several people exhibit similar traits. If three friends are getting a divorce, for example, and the conversations seem the same, many writers find using a composite character to be more ethical than singling out one soon-to-be ex-friend. The key is to let readers know what you are doing and why. Sometimes a single footnote is enough to maintain the nonfiction contract between writer and reader, something like: “I’ve changed names and identities to protect the privacy of friends and family, but all else is true as I experienced it.”

Some writers, like Cathy N. Davidson in “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” give a fuller explanation for the use of composites. During the process of writing her memoir about teaching English in Japan, Davidson had writer’s block because she feared that “a personal account might be embarrassing to the individual Japanese who inspired it.” In the acknowledgments to the book, she explains, “Composite characters… allow[ed] me to report actual events but to blur details in order to preserve the anonymity of the people involved.” As it turned out, the book was a best seller, and there were no outcries about her memoir being fiction; clearly, her decision did not hurt the book’s reception. Reader outrage, it seems, arises when privacy is not the reason for composites, when readers feel a more opportunistic motive at work— like trying to make a more dramatic story at truth’s expense.

But even when noble reasons are at work, readers can feel manipulated if they find that a character they thought was real turns out to be a composite. That happened when Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu wrote about the death of her brother, Nicolas, in her memoir about Guatemala. When reporters later discovered that Nicolas was alive, Menchu’s explanation was that he was a composite figure for all those young men, including another brother, who were murdered or starved to death. For many, the book’s credibility was lost; the justification came too late. Had Menshu, like Davidson, put it in the book, perhaps most readers would have felt that the writer-reader pact for “writing true” had been preserved.