Memoirs Need 3-D Characters Too!

When we write memoir, chances are we already have some pretty strong opinions about the people we’re describing. You may have spent your life thinking your sister is a control freak, your dad’s a  bully, your aunt is nuts… These categorizations can help us create distance from our families; they can help us survive the past.  When it comes to writing though, such stereotypes only distance our readers. In your story, if your sister comes across as a control freak and your dad a narcissistic bully, readers might understand why you left home, but they will not necessarily be moved by your story.  

Just as fiction needs 3-D characters to be compelling and believable, so does memoir. Your autobiographical story will only succeed if you people it with full, developed characters…

Part of your task as a memoirist is to reach beyond what you think you know about your characters and explore, with compassion and insight, what makes these people tick. Maybe your sister, beneath her control-freakishness, is dealing with a sexist boss, grieving the loss of a pregnancy, or terrified of confronting the abuse in her past. Maybe the self-centered father is dealing with a history of being bullied…  Whatever the case, secondary characters in your memoir have a right to be complex and fully human.  You will not do them or your story justice until you have discovered the thing that makes them who they are. 

Try some of the following exercises to understand your characters better:

–Freewrite in response to the following (it’s ok if you have to guess):  I think this character’s deepest wound was formed when….   in response to…  

–Try writing about one of your characters from the first person, using some of the following prompts from Alan Watt’s 90-Day Novel:

  • One thing you don’t know about me is…
  • The lie I continually tell myself is…
  • What makes me most afraid is…
  • What really broke my heart is…
  • The secret I can’t tell you is…
  • My perfect day would be…
  • My most important challenge is…
  • A time I felt trapped was…
  • My biggest regret is…
  • My childhood dream was…

–What are your character’s consistent inconsistencies?  Maybe she is selfish but likes to rescue stray dogs…  Maybe he is stingy with his time but generous with gift-giving. Maybe he is controlling but secretly longs to be taken care of…  See if you can come up with a list of inconsistencies for each character.  Then write a scene that shows this –a moment when the character’s complexity is revealed.

–Explore the other side of your characters.  For instance, if you generally think of your father in a negative light, write a warm memory of him.  If you like to portray your sister as pushy, write about a moment when she was receptive or kind.  If your mother generally comes across as supportive, show her in a moment when she was critical… This can be challenging, but it’s worth the work.  If you can’t remember specific moments, try writing in a conditional voice, imagining your character’s other side “I can imagine her the night her father died…” or,  “I cant remember a specific time when my brother cried, but it must have gone like this…”  

–Allow yourself (and your readers) to be surprised.  Three-dimensional characters develop and reveal themselves over the course of the story—even secondary characters or antagonists!  Write about a specific time when someone in your life surprised you, focusing on the details… allow a scene to emerge.  

One reason we tell our stories is to understand them, to learn something new about ourselves and those who have impacted us. If you’re not uncovering a few surprising things as you go, then you might just have to dig a little deeper!

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2 Replies to “Memoirs Need 3-D Characters Too!”

  1. I have just completed a first draft of a memoir. If I had written this book 5 years earlier, my sister would have appeared 2 dimensional and cruel. We are both writing memoirs and through the process of digging deeper into the motivations and struggles of our characters, we have made peace with each other. I think these exercises are useful in helping us write and helping us heal. That being said, I have no intention of going back and rewriting our childhood history. Softening what happened between us as children would be a disservice to us both. It is the retrospective voice that has changed.

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