Fiction & Creative Nonfiction

By Katherine Barrett, editor of Understorey Magazine. Presented at the first OFOS writing workshop in October 2019.

Fiction includes novels, short novels (novellas), short stories, and very short stories (flash fiction). Fictional stories are not true but they can contain elements of truth, for example details about the climate crisis.

A great example of climate-fiction—or cli-fi as it’s now known—is The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Creative nonfiction is a true story that is told with the techniques of fiction: vivid description, dialogue, setting etc. Memoir, personal essay, and literary journalism are examples.

A great example of creative nonfiction on climate is The Right to Be Cold, by Sheila Watt-Cloutier.

Both fiction and creative nonfiction are stories. And both require similar writing techniques.

You want your readers to connect with your story at an emotional level. You want them to feel what the characters are feeling. To do this, you need vivid, memorable, believable characters!

Focusing on characters, rather than focusing on a moral or message, will make a more engaging story.

What makes a vivid, memorable, believable character?

  • They are not one-dimensional. People are complex: even heroines are flawed; even villains are vulnerable. Try to show at least two sides to your central characters.
  • They want something. This drives your story forward. If the characters don’t want anything, there is no story! Think about what your central character wants—and what’s preventing them from getting it. This quest will set your story in motion.
  • They make us care about them. If readers don’t care about the central character, they won’t keep reading. We might not like the character as a person, but we have to care about what happens to them. Sometimes, readers care because something else is at stake. Does the character have a child or a pet? Are they working for the greater good—or trying to destroy it? Think about why readers should care.
  • They are capable of changing. In many stories, the central character changes by the end. They see things differently or they have achieved what they set out to do. This isn’t always the case, but readers need to feel that the characters are capable of changing their current situation. This helps drive the plot forward.

Alexa McDonough Institute Environment and Climate Change Canada Understorey Magazine