Arts & Entertainment

Shaping Nonfiction Characters

Ken Burns

Lesson time 09:26 min

Learn how to identify character arcs, leverage conflict, and set aside judgment to portray memorable nonfiction characters that capture the complexity of real life.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Make Space for Complex Characters and Reserve Judgement • Understanding Character Arcs: Frederick Douglass,The Civil War • Layered Conflicts Make Compelling Characters


I do think there's an arrogance we in the present have about things and people that went before us. And so one of the jobs that I feel is incumbent upon the writing of documentary films and the making of documentary films is to restore to those now dead people, now gone people, the fullness and the degree of complication of their life, their humanness, back to them. That's our work-- is to restore humanity to the human beings that went before that don't speak for themselves. They do if you take their diaries. They do if you write in a way that brings them alive. They do if you treat that old photograph as moving and not static-- all of those things. If you play their music on the instruments that they heard it on, then you have the possibility of willing them to life. You have the possibility of waking the dead. You have to liberate your characters to their full human dimension, whether they're historical or not. In my world, in the world of documentary, of nonfiction historical work, these people exist more out of my film than they do in my film. And so I am trying to distill an essence of an accurate aspect of it, knowing full well that the things I'm drawn to and the things that I'm distilling reflect, however unconsciously, my own biases and emotions and inclinations. So I'm always selecting to build a character here and mindful that I can't make it some perfect image, the white hat or the dark hat, that the hero will have significant flaws, will be wounded in certain ways, and that the villains will have their own humanity and their own attractive aspects. That's hugely important. But I also know they still exist in a kind of historical reality that I also have to be mindful of. And that makes the making of what we do a kind of three dimensional chess game. And so being hyper aware of it on your own part as you struggle to make a character real means that you have to permit a darker side, that Lincoln was tardy on slavery, that he was a depressive, that he didn't do this and he didn't do that. He suspended habeas corpus in Maryland. And I mean, the greatest assault on the Constitution is by the guy who saved the United States of America. Abraham Lincoln-- you've got to be able to understand that. What we think is, and storytelling tells us, we must have a beginning, middle, and end to every character that we have, in addition to the arc of a story in general. And in some ways, that's fraudulent. Some people aren't like that. Some people die early. Some people flame out early, whatever it is. But it is possible, in some way, to see how you introduce a character. So Frederick Douglass comes in, say, in "The Civil War" in the first episode. And we understand that this is, as we put it, and as he put it, someone who stole himself from slavery. So he appears there, in the beginning, as a kind of representative in lots of different ways of an aspiring group of people, the black African slaves stolen from their homeland,...

About the Instructor

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Ken Burns

The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

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