ABC’s of Writing: C is for Character

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing, #18

C is for Character. As many of you know, Kendra Bonnett and I both teach and write about the importance of character in memoir. We even argue that developing a character is easier for a fiction writer than a memoirist. Why? A fiction writer knows that she (or he) has to create every detail necessary to have a strong and believable protagonist. But a memoirist thinks that since she is a real person she doesn’t have to provide the same level of specificity.

In addition to our own research and writing about character, we decided to reach out to our colleague Martha Engber, author of the valuable book, Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up. I first met Martha at the Gilroy Library where she made a fascinating presentation about developing characters. Of course, I bought her book and made it one of the few that traveled in the car with me for our move from California to Oregon. Hundreds of books have now arrived and are still in their boxes awaiting new bookcases. But Martha’s book is nearby having enjoyed a first class ride in our Honda. No dusty box for that book.

Kendra and I asked Martha if she would share a few of her ideas about developing characters with memoir writers. Below is her introduction to the topic. Then if you click on the link to Women’s Memoirs, you’ll see the first two problems and solutions that she poses. On Tuesday, we’ll post two more problems and solutions she discusses as well as her conclusion. We hope you’ll join us for all three of these valuable posts.

Why Memoirists Need to Fully Employ Character Development, Part 1

By Martha Engber

Memoir writing is an extremely attractive proposition for two reasons: 1) Memoirs cover past events and 2) involve real people. With the plot and characters already set, there’s no need to develop either.

The problem with this reasoning is that without a clear main character who’s on a significant, well-defined journey that’s populated by people readers care about, the story becomes a list of “this happened, then this and this…”, and like that too-long Christmas form letter, is read, then skimmed, then set down without further thought.

If you, as a memoirist, want to circumvent that outcome, embrace the idea that a memoir is a character-driven endeavor that begins with you.

By you, I don’t just mean you, the writer. Instead, a memoir is about you, the main character who’s on a significant journey leading to an extraordinary epiphany that forever alters who you are and your view of the world.

While that statement may seem obvious to some, I’m always amazed by the number of memoir writers I meet in workshops and at conferences who seem intent upon writing about everyone but themselves.

Therefore, your first task is to develop yourself as a main character. When you develop you, you will find the plot, otherwise known as the string of obstacles and corresponding actions that push you toward your greatest fear and eventual epiphany. Once you’re clear about who and what the story is about, you’ll be able to select the people who played a major role in your journey and why you have to make the reader care for them, too.

Please join me on Women’s Memoirs where I discuss two problems (and their solutions) to character development for memoir writers.


Martha Engber is the author of the literary novel, THE WIND THIEF (a book club pick) and GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP: A THOROUGH PRIMER FOR WRITERS OF FICTION AND NONFICTION. A journalist by profession, she’s interviewed former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, actress Marlo Thomas and other celebrities. A workshop facilitator, lecturer and book editor, she’s had a full-length play produced in Hollywood. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Watchword, Iconoclast, Bookpress, the Berkeley Fiction Review and other literary journals. She maintains Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up, a site for writers. Martha lives with her family in Northern California.

If you’d like to know more about Martha:

Martha Engber’s website

Martha’s Facebook fan page

Martha’s book: Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction

2 responses to “ABC’s of Writing: C is for Character

  1. Pingback: Memoir Writing Tip: Develop Your Characters, An Interview with Martha Engber — Memoir Writing Blog

  2. Pingback: Memoir Writing Tip: More on Develop Your Characters, An Interview with Martha Engber — Memoir Writing Blog

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