by Louise Nayer
When writing a memoir, writing character is more complicated because you are often writing about close family. Creating living, breathing characters is just as important in memoir as in fiction. You can always share your writing with relatives you care about—just to make sure you remain on speaking terms; however, as in fiction we need to see a character, show them in action and hear them speak.
Appearance Matters (but it is often not the whole story)
Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings writes, “On my way to church, I saw Sister Monroe, her open-faced gold crown glinting when she opened her mouth to return a neighborly greeting.” She has a particular name, her gold crown glints and the use of open-faced and neighborly expresses her personality in few words.
Be a good people-observer, a detective like Colombo. How do characters use their hands? Wink? Raise their eyebrows? Thick curls? Purple hair? Licks their lips when hungry? One twin might crush a beer can before recycling; another might not. Use sensory detail: the feel of your new crushed velvet skirt as you run your hands along the side, the warmth of the plaid shirt as you lie in your father’s lap.
Smell is important, too. My mother, facially disfigured from an accident, used heavy cosmetics to cover her burns along with Chanel #5 perfume, a heady mix.
In The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Eliot runs into an old girlfriend on a train. “But there she was in a polyester sleeveless brown shirt, without makeup, reading a paperback. She was like everybody else on that train, coming home from work, except she had better posture.” Small details make her easily distinguishable.
Sometimes, the aunt wearing dockside attire, matching purse and shoes, runs a homeless shelter. Appearance is just the outer layer.
Photos and videos can help jog your memory. Interview relatives. Use old letters if you have them. Find books on fashion in the era you’re writing about. Think about socio-economic class. What would your grandmother wear? Did your aunt sew her own clothes?
What people do is important, too, and attached to theme and narrative arc, how the book or essay leads to transformation, often of you as the main character.
In Thirty Days with my Father, Christal Presley writes about her father who had severe PTSD and was filled with rages. As a little girl, Presley believes if she loves him enough that he will change. “I’d crack open the door to peek in. He must hate me something awful, I thought. He must hate my mother too.” There is a sweet and sad poignancy to her attempts to fix her dad. The understanding and reconciliation come much later.
In Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes and Memory, she writes, “When Tante Atie saw me, she raised the piece of white cloth she was embroidering and waved it at me. When I stood in front of her, she opened her arms just wide enough for my body to fit into them.” This small action shows the love her aunt felt for her.
Pick the actions that are crucial to understanding character.
What People Say
In memoir, dialogue needs to be recreated, as we don’t go through life with recording devices strapped to our bodies, unless we are spies. Keep it short. Take out unnecessary tag lines—“he said, she said” if it’s clear who is speaking. Show how a character feels instead of saying “she was angry.”
Example: She pounded her fists on the kitchen table. “What’s going on with my sister!”
Also, people don’t always say what they mean. “I’m not sure I’m okay with everything,” could hide the fact that her bags are packed. One character might say, “I feel like shit,” while another might say, “I feel ill.” A very proper 90-year-old woman who never curses and says, “I feel like shit,” must feel very bad indeed.
In the opening to The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, she is at a restaurant with her mother, who is homeless.
“I’m worried about you,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to help.” Her smile faded.
“What makes you think I need your help?”
“I’m not rich,” I said. “But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need.”
She thought for a moment. “I could use an electrolysis treatment.”
As readers, we are surprised and engaged. A homeless woman wants an electrolysis treatment more than cash to buy food or find permanent shelter. We want to keep reading.
The more specific you are as you talk about how your characters look, what they do and how they speak, the more we will be pulled into your world.
William Zinsser says, “Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family.” The more specifically you write about character, the more you will tap into the universal truths about the human condition.
Louise Nayer has written two books of poetry, and co-authored How to Bury a Goldfish about rituals for everyday life. The award-winning Burned: A Memoir, an Oprah great read, is a family story about a gas explosion in Cape Cod which burned her parents when she was four years old. Her most recent book is Poised for Retirement: Moving from Anxiety to Zen. Louise is a member of the Writer’s Grotto, a retired City College of San Francisco professor and now teaches through OLLI UC Berkeley and at The Grotto. She has done numerous radio spots, including on NPR.