Characters Are the Heart of a Memoir


BC with DadMemoir is story about people and experiences, both inner and outer. It’s about relationships, connection. And characters — the people in our life stories — are at the heart of it all.

When we know a character, we tend to care more about the story. I see some of my students and clients writing memoir that often suffers from a focus on describing incidents one after another, neglecting the important fact that the reader doesn’t know the characters in the story.

Part of the reason popular memoirs are popular is because the writers of them don’t make those assumptions. They flesh out the people in their memoir so they become as fully dimensional as characters in a novel — or as real as the real people in our lives.

As storyteller, you are the one to give your characters life on the page. If your characters are flat, your writing will be too.

And one of those characters, believe it or not, is YOU. Just because it’s you who’s writing the story doesn’t mean your reader knows you at all of the various ages you’re writing about. When you see yourself as the multidimensional, 3-D character you are, you populate your own story more fully, all of the scenes and the narrative that moves the story forward is infused with you in your many dimensions —your style, your values, your habits, your inconsistencies.

Let’s take a look at how to draw those dimensions.

1) Don’t put someone in front of a mirror and describe what they see. It’s as flat a method of showing someone as the mirror they’re looking into.

2) Don’t list character features: hair color, height, weight, eye color. The details may have a place somewhere, but forget the list. It doesn’t belong in a narrative, it belongs on a driver’s license.

3) Sprinkle in  details here and there that show you and others around you in the time and place you’re writing about.

4) Too much detail can look heavy-handed, overly conscious, make the reader aware of you as a writer instead of feeling like they’re in the story and you’re the invisible guide. You don’t need to put in everything you know and certainly don’t need to do it all at once.

How much is too much? Notice what other writers you like do with this and read over your drafts for too much or not enough. It’s like adjusting the spices when you’re cooking.

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph.

Mannerisms and habits, personal style and personality-revealing actions show character. When you intersperse these sorts of descriptive details throughout your writing the reader gets to know the characters through her encounters with them. They begin to live on the page. She probably won’t remember from three chapters back that Grandpa had hazel eyes and was balding, but she will remember that he lit a fat cigar after every meal and relit it at least ten times during an hour’s sitting.

Sensory details are helpful too, as they draw us viscerally into a scene and help us  know a character in ways we wouldn’t without them. Kim Chernin did this  beautifully in her memoir, In My Mother’s House: She was a woman who woke early, no matter how late she went to bed the night before. Every morning she would exercise, bending and lifting and touching and stretching, while I sat on the bed watching her with my legs curled up. Then, a cold shower and she would come from it shivering, smelling of rosewater, slapping her arms. She ate toast with cottage cheese, standing up, reading the morning paper. But she would always have too little time to finish her coffee. I would watch her taking quick sips as she stood at the door. “Put a napkin into your lunch,” she’d call out to me, “I forgot the napkin.” And there was always a cup with a lipstick stain standing half full of coffee on the table near the door.

Sign up for my free teleseminar for more about writing three-dimensional character, including tips on how to show yourself as one of them and for some valuable tools you can use: Thursday, March 7, 4 pm PST / 7 pm EST. Go to www.namw.org. If you can’t make the teleseminar Thursday be sure to sign up in advance so you can get the recording of it and listen to it anytime. My website also has lots of good info on writing, so be sure to stop by: www.suzannesherman.com.

2 responses to “Characters Are the Heart of a Memoir

  1. Excellent post and great character-writing tips, Suzanne. We sometimes forget that we, the narrators of our stories, are also characters.

  2. Pingback: How to Write Your Memoirs | Did You Know That???

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