Having edited numerous memoir projects, I’ve discovered that character creation needs clarification for new memoir writers. Creating a character in a nonfiction piece is oftentimes the same as creating a story in a fiction piece. Like normal people, characters have wants and needs, fears, desires. There are stakes, motivations, and conflict.
Characters are characters, period. Whether they are made from scratch for a fiction piece or inspired by real people. Remember that the manuscript tells a story that has characters, character arcs, and conflict. Write it almost like you would a fictional piece.
For context, memoirs are typically told in the 1st person, told with more literary description and finesse, and are concentrated around one period of life as opposed to an autobiography which chronicles one’s whole life. Just like with a novel, memoirs are told with sensory details (touch, smell, taste, and sound). Focusing on those aspects in the time is a major party of memoir storytelling.
“Memoir writing is one of the most transformative types of writing because of the self-reflection it requires.” — Marian Liautaud
Writing memoirs requires a great deal of preparation to keep the details correct. Make sure to gather your notes before writing. Take a moment to consider the direction of your writing before attempting to write your memoir piece. This is an especially important step in your process. Do your research about events that took place by reading old magazines and newspapers or chatting with people familiar with the event you’re retelling.
Read other books, nonfiction and fiction. Gaining an understanding of how characters are presented in any type of story will help you write your memoir character.
Unfortunately with memoirs, there may be details that have been long forgotten. So, to write your memoir character, fill in “respectable” gaps. When it comes to motive and drive and desire, it’s best to come up with reasonable and respectable rationales for the actions of your memoir characters. Be mindful of how you paint your characters, as you don’t want to offend or misrepresent the real person.
When preparing your characters for your memoir (or any book), make sure that you have a clear idea of who this person is. What are their fears? Who do they love? Where are they from? All of these aspects come into play during your narrative.
With a memoir, you may know all the things upfront. If you don’t, interview the person if possible. Get an idea of how to portray this character on the page. Use the Character Planning Sheet to brainstorm some of those key aspects of your character.
When you begin writing, you’ll be able to introduce the character and make them jump off the page and become someone your readers can relate to.
“Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, this is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it.” — Jeannette Walls
The Components of Character
Characters must have a motivation in your narrative, a reason for doing the things they do or for making certain decisions. Whether your character robs a bank or saves a kitten out of a tree, you must make the motivations clear. Is your character motivated by religion, family, personal needs, etc.? For your character to spring to life, ensure that he or she has a moral compass (whether good or bad), has reasons for their actions. For example, a family man may sacrifice time with his family to care for a sick child. The motivation is logical and fits within that character.
Every person has something at stake in their life. If your character doesn’t land the job, he or she will be evicted from their home. With every story, there’s also something that must be grasped. Each character, who is trying to accomplish something, must have something at stake attached. Tell the stories that are most interesting and relatable for the reader. Your readers can relate to feelings of gloom and doom at the prospect of failure. That’s real life and your reader will become vested in the character if there is something to lose.
One of the main components of any story involves conflict. Be sure that your character is an active part of the conflict occurring in your memoir. External conflicts like fighting with family members or dealing with heartbreak. Also consider internal conflicts, thoughts that contrast the norms set for them. Always consider the impact your character makes on your story and introduce them along with the central conflict or moment that your memoir is centered around.
Just like real people, your character should present goals that they want to achieve. In your memoir, make sure that each character introduced has a central goal, something they want more than anything else, something they will fight hard to attain.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” — Ann Lamott
No matter the subject matter, characters in your memoir need to feel like the characters written in fiction. They must have a reason for their actions, goals, motivations, and something that’s at stake for them. If there are gaps, reasonably fill them where possible. Memoirs tell authentic stories in a fictionalized way, so be mindful that every word you write reveals character or moves plot. And your characters fuel the story and keep it moving. Make sure they all have their purpose in your narrative and all should be well.
Memoir vs Creative Non-fiction - OWS Ink outlines where memoirs and nonfiction are similar as well as opposites, and gives examples of each.
Creating Vivid Characters in Your Memoir Is Essential - Denis Ledoux reiterates that without character development, a memoir will be dull. Vivid character development is a must.
Characterization in Memoir - Kathleen Pooler highlights the difference between fiction characters and nonfiction characters and how a real character must be brought to life.
Real People, Real Characters: The Who of Memoir - Michelle Richmond expounds on the thought process that while a real character is interesting to us, that character must be made interesting to the reader - vivid characters are essential.
Six Tips for Writing a Memoir - the Masterclass Staff offers insight on writing the actual memoir and lists steps to follow for success.