Characterization in Memoir:Tips on Bringing Real People to Life
Posted by Kathleen Pooler/@kathypooler
“We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.” Isaac Bashevis Singer in The New York Times Magazine.
There are real characters in our lives, as in “He’s a real character” and there are the real characters in our memoirs or novels. The characters in a memoir are real people. The characters in a novel involve people who seem real. They may be crafted with real people in mind. Either way, they need to be brought to life to our readers in authentic, believable and engaging ways.
A memoir is so much more than capturing a personal history. In order to connect with the reader, the memoir writer has to turn life events into a story that reads like a novel. To accomplish this, memoir writers are required to use the same techniques as fiction writers.
The difference is fiction writers have the liberty to create their characters in any way their imaginations allow within the realm of believability. Memoir writers are obligated to stay true to the real person.
The questions for memoir writers become:
How do I convey my true life experiences in ways that bring my stories and characters to life on the page?
How creative can I be while still staying true to the real people in my life who happen to show up in my memoir?
How can I shine a light on my story and my characters in a way that engages my readers?
Since a memoir writer not only tells a story but reflects upon the people and events that lead to growth and change, character development becomes an essential element in the story.
Who am I? Who have I become? Who has influenced me on my journey? How have they influenced me? How do I make my characters interesting and human (multidimensional- not all good and not all bad)?
In memoir writing, I know who these people are but how can I convey the essence of who they are to the reader? How can I bring these real characters to life on the pages? How can I portray myself and my characters in a realistic and believable way?
What will make the reader want to read more about my characters- myself included?
- “Identify the little details about them that make them stand apart from the crowd by keeping a journal of each character- including the basics of physical traits to where they like to go on vacation.
- Since you cannot know what they think, you have to rely on what they say or do- typical mannerisms, dialogue.”
- “Grab your reader’s interest in the first scene. Start with action.
- Appeal to the senses
- Focus on the small details so the reader can recognize something in their own life.
- Share your thoughts and feelings
- Pull it together leaving the reader feeling like the story is complete.”
C.S. Lakin, Author and Editor notes in this post on “Character Arcs” on her blog Live, Write ,Thrive:
“A character taken on an inner journey should end up seeing new things about self.”
I would add here that often times, it is the people in our lives who help us discover who we are and where we need to go. Bringing them to life for the reader will help the reader experience the story in a more intimate way.
In summary, here are some ways to help bring characters to life on the pages:
- Research your characters- keep a journal of traits, unique features. Try people-watching. Listen to how people speak, walk, what makes them smile or laugh.
- Journal- your thoughts, feelings, reflections in response to characters
- Study photos-try to recapture the essence of a person by their facial expression, their clothes, and their stance.
- Include the five senses in scenes. Here is an excellent post by Fiction Author Jody Hedlund on “Using the 5 Senses to Make Our Characters Jump Off the Page”. I love the part about awakening our senses by unplugging from the internet. She offers some practical tips on how to maximize the use of sensory details.
I highly recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s new resource book for writers, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. It provides lists of unique descriptions- physical, internal sensations, mental responses as well as tips- for showing common emotions.
Here’s an excerpt of a scene from my memoir-in-progress, Chapter Two: The Awakening that I changed after using The Emotion Thesaurus to convey “nervousness”:
The phone rang and when Carol answered it, she lowered the receiver to her leg and asked me if I wanted to speak with Ken. Pursing her lips and shaking her head in disapproval, she handed me the phone.
Even though I had told Ken I would not be coming back despite his pleas to reconsider, when I returned to the couch, she said,
“You’ll do it again,” nodding repetitively.
How could she be so sure? It scared me to think she might be right. I sat motionless before her, feeling naked and vulnerable, like she knew a truth I was yet to find out. Would I do it again-risk my mental health and the safety and welfare of my children just to have a man in my life?
Rubbing the back of my neck, I cleared my throat. Looking down, I noticed my right leg was bouncing. Leigh and Brian (my children) sat across from me fidgeting and firing questions at me about seeing their friends and being able to go back to school. Luckily it was Friday and I had the weekend to figure it out. Closing my eyes, I took a calming breath.
How about you? How do you bring your characters to life on the page?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave your comments below~
This week: I’m also over at Belinda Nicoll’s My Rite of Passage blog with this post: “Change means…listening to your inner voice and deciding not to be a victim”
Next Week: Memoir Author and Poet Madeline Sharples will answer questions about her stunning memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, a shining example of bringing a story and characters to life on the page. Madeline will give away a free copy of her memoir to a commenter selected in a random drawing.