By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Character development in memoir
Do you have a favorite novel, one that you return to again and again? Chances are the characters in a fictional world feel as real as the living people you know. Their mannerisms and behavior are so well defined that if they suddenly popped off the page and wandered past you on the street, you’d recognize them instantly.
Characters in memoir, too, should be this real to readers, perhaps even more so because they are real! But that’s the clincher: We are so used to the mannerisms and speech patterns of those we know well that we forget our readers aren’t. It’s hard to step far enough back to describe them fully on the page. However, if we want to immerse our readers in the fully embodied experience of who we are as characters, as well as who the other people inhabiting our stories are, we have to do just that. Here are a few ways to go about it.
What does a character look like – hair, body type, facial features? It’s helpful for readers to be able to picture a few of these details, but use them judiciously – just a couple of physical details to give an outline. Too many of these descriptions can bog a story down. Instead, move on to other indirect physical details which reveal who that person is: What kind of clothing does the character wear – a mini-skirt with knee-high leather boots, or business casual slacks and button up blouse, or a flannel shirt with jeans? This gives us a sense of what kind of person this is (racy, conservative, or casual) without your having to tell us directly.
How does a character hold him- or herself: Does she stand tall with shoulders back or does she slump a bit? Does he make direct eye contact or look away? We can show a great deal about who a character is through their physical movements and gestures, or in how they react and behave in certain situations. (See my April 2013 column on body language for additional examples.)
The details of a person’s physical environment can also reveal much about the character; for example, “Aunt Gladys’s house was filled with cats and teetering stacks of Good Housekeeping magazine dating back forty years.” Enough said, right?
Another important way to develop a character is through capturing his or her unique voice on the page. This is especially challenging. It’s easy to accidentally write everyone’s voice exactly the same. When writing memoir, you will not usually remember a conversation word for word, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to capture the cadence and style of a particular voice and the essence or kinds of things a person would say. This takes a lot of practice and the patience to listen carefully.*
Go back to that favorite novel of yours. Look closely at how that author uses physical descriptions, body language, dialogue and other cues to make your favorite characters come alive. Pay close attention especially to language and dialogue. Do this also as you continue to read other fiction and memoir. See what tricks you can borrow. If you’re looking for some reading suggestions, here are three classic memoirs that capture the details of character and voice especially well: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter.
Below are some exercises and prompts to help you capture your own cast of characters and make them three-dimensional on the page:
Make yourself a character. Try writing a character sketch of yourself in third person (“she” or “he”), as if you are looking at yourself through someone else’s eyes – a stranger’s, your sister’s, or one of your parents. What do you look like to them, inside and out?
Pick a photo of someone whom you’re writing about and use that as a freewriting prompt. Do a character sketch of that person: physical details, gestures, things that person might say. What do you know about his or her history or how they behave?
Pick one or more of the character prompts below and freewrite for ten minutes on each. You can change the people around; for example, substitute “father” for “mother.”
My mother always said …
My sister’s smile …
My father’s eyes …
My grandfather knew …
And, finally, this season at your holiday gatherings with family and friends – or at the annual office party – practice observing people. Note how they express themselves through clothing. What particular gestures does each person around the table have (pushing glasses up on the bridge of their nose, clearing their throat regularly)? Listen to what people say and how they say it. Keep a small notebook in your pocket or purse – or use your smart phone – to surreptitiously take notes. Remember, we’re all characters – on and off the page!
*For more excellent tips and examples on revealing character through physical details, setting, dialogue, and character arc, see Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach (London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2007).
This is VoiceCatcher’s eleventh article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.