How to write about real humans: lessons from fiction

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck

Development narratives so often relegate the people we work with to the projects we work on. As if the person and the project are the same.

But they’re not.

If development is ultimately about people, why does our sector struggle so much to tell layered stories about real humans?

I know, I know. Development communications is tough, especially with tight budgets and resistance to spending money on communications efforts. Yet just because people spend a lot of money on development communications campaigns, it doesn’t mean those stories will portray nuance and human dignity.

So how can we combat this?

Ideally, we can let people share their own stories, in their own words. But that isn’t always an option. One suggestion when you’re struggling against overly simplistic storylines is this: take a tip from fiction writers by creating a character profile.

Writers go through these processes to make their fictional characters come to life. Even when we don’t use all the information that goes into these profiles or backstories, it helps us tell those characters’ stories in a more realistic way. It assists the writer in deciding what should filter through and how. And then the character moves from being one-dimensional to multi-faceted. Many writers, myself included, don’t necessarily fill out a full questionnaire, but spending time getting to know each main character is really important to the story.

Of course writing fiction is different than writing an article, a blog, or creating a 5 minute video. But this tool can still be useful. It helps us talk about development interventions in more human terms. That, in turn, makes it easier to communicate human connections to our audience.

The character profile is a way to practice working around equating people with projects. Until it becomes second nature.

Writing a profile like this means trying to find out who this person is. What makes him tick? Where does she come from? What does he spend the day dreaming about? What is she proud of? What has he learned the most from? What inspires her? What makes him sad?

Make a list of potential questions to really get to know the people

This matters because projects become outdated, but people’s stories are timeless. Yes, the story is often a way of communicating project milestones, challenges, advocacy, etc. But your audience will walk away remembering the person, and how your organization is partnering to make a difference. They most likely won’t remember the exact number of water purification systems your organization installed.

Writing a character profile can help us figure out what matters to the person we’re talking/writing about. And being able to speak to those things in a way that meets what the audience cares about can lead to some pretty powerful stories.

Of course, there are many ways to produce layered stories about people and development. But they all require getting to know the people and context. This is just a slightly out-of-the-box suggestion that might come in handy when we get stuck.


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