Real People, Real Characters: The WHO of Memoir

Posted by Michelle Richmond on

One of the wonderful things about writing memoir is that there is so much life material to use when we allow ourselves to fully explore our pasts. Much of that material comes from character. This is beginning to sound easy, isn't it?

Not so fast. Because the characters who make up our memoirs are part of our lives, and because we know them so well, it's easy to skimp on characterization as we write our stories. We may expect the reader to find the person interesting because he or she is interesting to us, yet we don't allow the reader to get to know the character in the way that we know him or her. It's easy to take character traits for granted, leaving the reader in the dark.

Remember that your readers know nothing about any of these people until you tell them. Therefore you must be absolutely vigilant in thinking about, and presenting, all the real people you write about -- including yourself -- as characters, first and foremost. Remember, every good story is character-driven.

In his memoir 'A Childhood,' Harry Crews introduces us to characters who seem more like the stuff of imagination than of reality. Notice Crews' description of Hollis Toomey and his wife:

'His wife always wore her hair in a tight bun at the back of her head under a stiffly starched white bonnet. Her dresses were nearly to her ankles, and they always looked and smelled as if they had just come off the clothesline after a long day in the sun.

Hollis always smelled like his pockets were full of ripe chicken guts, and his overalls were stiff as metal. He didn't wear a beard; he wore a stubble. The stubble was coal black despite the fact he was over sixty, and it always seemed to be the same length, the length where you've got to shave or start telling everybody you're growing a beard. Hollis Toomey did neither...A mosquito couldn't fly through a door he was standing in he was so wide and high, and more, he was obviously indestructible. He ran on his own time, went where he needed to go. '

If you think fiction writers have all the fun, think again. Your own life is populated with people who will make wonderful characters if you take the time and care to render them accurately.

You don't need to elaborate on every detail of character in the story. However, you do need to know enough that you can choose what to include and what to omit; and the reader needs to know enough for the character's actions to seem believable. 'But this really happened!' is a weak defense of a character's actions if the character is so vague that the reader doubts the veracity of the story.

One useful tool to use in the pre-writing process is the dossier. Compile a dossier for each of the major players in your story. Begin with the basics:
First, note the things that would be obvious about your real-life character upon first meeting him or her: name, sex, age, ethnicity.

After writing down the most obvious traits, ask the ice-breaker questions -- questions your reader might have about this person if they met at a dinner party: occupation, background, attachment (single? married? divorced? widowed? married but looking?)

Now your character is becoming clearer, but we want to know more: what is his or her religion, political affiliation?

Okay, the conversation is really moving along now. You've gotten past small talk. Time to get personal. What are your character's habits, best qualities, worst faults? What makes him/her happy, sad, angry? Who/what does s/he love or hate most? What is your character most proud of and ashamed of? What is his/her secret ambition, darkest secret?

It isn't necessary for all of this information to make it into your written story. What matters is that you have really thought about the people in your life, and you know them well enough to introduce them to your readers. If you don't know the answers to some of these questions, think back on your relationship with the person about whom you are writing -- significant conversations, things he or she did that surprised you. If many of the questions remain unanswered -- for example, you never knew your mother's secret ambition, and you can't remember a time when she was happy -- the unanswered questions may be part of your story. Why? Because it reveals something about your mother's nature, as well as the relationship you had with her.

Okay, so you've given your characters a lot of thought. You've really gotten to know them. How do you reveal them in your memoir? Action, dialogue, and appearance. And the greatest of these is action.

Unlike a fiction writer, who has the privilege of creating characters' thoughts, the memoirist can usually only speculate as to what other characters are thinking. Thus the memoirist must rely to a large extent on action. Deeds carry a lot of weight. Also, an action is more likely to be remembered by the reader than mere words, because action is more dramatic than dialogue. In 'When Did You Last See Your Father,' Blake Morrison describes the way his father behaves in a traffic jam:

'Every two minutes or so he gets out of the car, crosses to the opposite verge and tries to see if there is movement up ahead. There isn't. He gets back in ... he opens the door for a final time and stands on the wheel arch to crane ahead. '

Morrison could have simply told us that his father was an impatient man. Instead, he revealed his father's impatience through action.

In addition to actions, the way a character speaks says a great deal about his or her personality, education, and emotion. As the memoirist, you are not at liberty to create emotion for your characters; so the words that come out of the characters' mouths form a logical connection between the internal and the external. In memoir we can only be inside the mind of the narrator, not the other characters. Dialogue, however, provides a glimpse into characters' thoughts. The reader then interprets a real person's speech and makes sense of it in the context of the story.

For example, notice how Saul Bellow portrays his father through speech in 'Memoirs of a Bootlegger's Son.'

'You can turn to me,' he'd say. 'But to whom can I turn? Everything comes from me and nothing to me. How long can I bear it? Is this what the life of a man is supposed to be? Are you supposed to be loaded until your back is broken? Oh my God, I think I begin to see. Those are lucky who die when their childhood is over and never live to know the misery of fighting in the world.'

Without a word of explanation from Bellow, we come to see Pa as a self-pitying and pessimistic man.

Of course, the reader should also be able to see your character. Facial features, body shape, style, and clothing can make statements about a person's values, as well as his or her way of life. In 'Ring Leader', by Natalie Kusz, appearance proves to be one of the most important aspects of character, because the author has struggled with her own appearance throughout her life:

'The fact is, I grew up ugly -- no, worse than that, I grew up unusual, that unforgivable sin among youth ... The bad news was that I had only one eye, having lost the other in a dog attack at age seven; so although contacts, at half the two-eyed price, were easy to talk my parents into, I was still left with an eye patch and many facial scars, signs as ugly as neon, telling everyone, 'Here is a girl who is Not Like You.'

'Action, dialogue, and appearance,' you think. 'Is that all there is to it?' No, we're not quite finished. Think of someone to whom you are close. Now think of a crisis that has occurred in that person's life -- a time when he or she was in some kind of trouble. How did s/he respond to the crisis? What did the person's behavior in time of crisis reveal about him/her? Try the same method with yourself.

Why is this important? Because crisis reveals character. Every man behaves a little bit differently upon discovering that his new car, which he lent to his brother, is lying in a ditch off I-10. Does he punch his brother in the face? Does he go immediately to the scene of the accident and stand over the car, crying? Does he get on his cell phone and make two calls, one to a friend who owns a tow truck, the other to his insurance agent? Does he buy his brother a beer at the local brew pub, where they discuss the impermanence of things?

So know your character -- whether the character is a friend, family member, or yourself. Reveal your character through actions, dialogue, appearance, and crisis. Remember, CHARACTER IS STORY. Characters aren't merely pegs to be inserted into a preconceived plot. Characters are living, breathing people who have made your life more interesting, and who will make your story more interesting as well.

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