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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.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
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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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,...

The drama of truth

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.


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

I love listening to Burns talk about his process. His passion for each and every film that he's made, and his mix of emotional and intellectual notes make this an invaluable and inspirational class.

This class knocked my socks off from the very first line.

Ken Burns was a great teacher. I have new tools to help me polish up my own craft thanks to this man.

The knowledge that there is the same underlying principle to filmmaking whether documentary or feature films, its the principle of storytelling. This is reflected through all forms of art.


Neil T.

I served in Vietnam in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Central Highland mountains. I was there for two years. I witnessed and participated in the invasion of Laos and Cambodia and spent a lot of time in Tahn Ninh Province (a real hell hole) with the 1st Cav Division. When I returned home, I spent 18 months in psychological therapy at the VA hospital to get myself together. I can attest that Ken's portrayal of the war is probably one of the most accurate I have ever seen. Thanks, Ken for telling "our" story. I'm sure many of my friends who did not make it back would thank you as well.

Jonathan B.

As mentioned in the previous comments. One thing I am enjoying listening to Ken is the way he communicates and very well spoken. I saw the Vietnam series and was truly amazed by the level of depths of what those people from both sides had to go through during this tough period of time of the Vietnam war. One quote specifically caught my ear was "the driving engine of story og narrative is the conflict". By Ken Burns. That's very true cause you have Mr. Musgrave coming back home from the war to what was happening on college campuses. A very powerful way to convey a personal story to showcase the overall picture of what has actually happened.

Jamie-Lee S.

Ken shares very powerful insights on humanity. Very endearing thinker and communicator! I feel this is more than just a Masterclass, I am learning more than I thought I would. Ken has a really strong sense of humanity and empathy, no wonder his films are works of art & of heart! You are making us think, Ken! I will take this all in on my own journey...Thank you :)

Tony C.

The way Ken handled getting John Musgrave's story and his angst across was masterful. Wilfred Owen's poem on the futility of war was fairly influential to many of us as kids but to see Musgrave's face, reliving the hell of war was more moving to me, because this was a man who had wanted to serve his country. His desire to be honourable and his honesty was believable. Musgrave's honesty about fear and hatred , which appears in one of the episodes on Vietnam was so truthful that I was in awe. Not sure how many takes Ken had to do when filming but I loved the authenticity. Most probably got it right first time as it was a moment of truth and I just don't think that Musgrave would act this out. The human stories and the desire to be objective was great. One of the best in the Masterclass series.

Garrett W.

Another great class! Arc time! I am write in the throws of character development so this was most helpful! PDF asks good questions too.

A fellow student

These Masterclasses are the best I've seen on this website so far! He has both technical skill, great humanity and the gift of conveying it in layman's terms - a true artist. Thank you Burns for letting us into your thoughts and processes!


It is important when telling the truth to reveal the complexity in life situations. I find myself searching backwards to find what caused this, but what caused that, and what happened before that caused that. It is important to see what happens before wars start, i.e., who is profiting from the war and why. Go back to the beginning and reveal that truth, then we will not be so ready to fight our neighbors. We are so blessed to have Ken Burns in this world to help us see the truth and learn how to dig it out.

Nathan W.

I like the analogy Ken makes about Lincoln. Showing his contradictions. He was "tardy on abolition..." but he "saved America." He paints people for who they are not necessarily all good or bad. I think this is important in documentary filmmaking.

Sunny N.

Internal and external conflicts pose significant challenges in journalism as well. I have had to take these conflicts into account even when bringing live people to life. Not that all knowledge about them will end up in my story, but some knowledge about them may help me to be fairer in my coverage of them. After all, we can never know all there is to know about anything, anyone or even ourselves. I continue to surprise myself about some bit of knowledge on me and constantly learn how little know about my response to something until I am presented the situation.

Meg N.

As great as Ken Burns' documentaries are, learning how he makes them is even greater. Inspiring.