Saturday, October 22, 2011

What inner qualities define your memoir’s main characters?

Today we’ll dig deeper into the exercise of bringing life to your memoir’s main characters—people who shaped your life, for better or for worse.

Why is that important?

First: You want people to read your stories. The more interesting your characters, the more likely readers will keep turning pages.*

Second, related to the first: Writing your memoir is more than a hobby. It is an important ministry to your family.* Your stories contain important messages, lessons, and values you want to pass on to your kids, grandkids, and generations to come. If they don’t read your stories, however, they’ll miss the wisdom and significance you want to pass on to them. 

Look through your rough drafts for vague, one-dimensional strangers. When you find them, add details so that your main characters—not every person, but key people in your vignettes—have personality and emotions and traits.


Last time we focused on sensory details* because they help readers feel they’re standing beside you, participating in your story. Write so your readers experience what you saw, smelled, felt, heard, and tasted.

For example, did he have body odor? Did she talk with a Scottish accent? Were his hands leathery? Did she comport herself like a ballerina?

It’s important, however, to go beyond sensory details, beyond physical qualities: Dig deeper and flesh out central people.

To do that, enlarge upon individuals who played significant roles in your life. What inner qualities define him or her? Tell readers about her moral fiber. What was going on in his heart, soul, spirit, mind?

How did she make decisions? What did his faith inspire him to do? Did he show you what courage is?

Did she model faithfulness? What did he teach you about forgiveness? Grace and mercy? Integrity? Honor? Tenacity? Hope? Self-control? How did he react in a crisis?

How and why did she turn the other cheek? How did he handle failure? What heartaches did she live with? What crosses did he silently bear?

Roy Peter Clark says it this way: “To bring a person to literary life requires not a complete inventory of characteristics, but selected details arranged to let us see flesh, blood, and spirit.” (from Keeping it real: how round characters grow from the seeds of detail, by Roy Peter Clark, at

ometimes a person’s negative character traits influenced you as much as another person’s positive attributes: 

What did bitterness do to her?
What prejudices did he hold and how did they impact family gatherings?
Did she act one way in public and another way at home?
What did her timidity prevent her from doing?
How did his fear hinder his faith in God?
How did she let disappointment shape her attitudes?
What were his blind spots?
Was she cold-hearted? Mean-spirited?

While you work on your central characters' "flesh, blood, and spirit," keep in mind the definition* and beauty and purpose of memoir:

Memoir includes pondering, examining, unraveling, musing, and retrospection

In light of your current knowledge, look for lessons God had for you in the people and events you write about.

How did key people—whether positive or negative influences—help you learn about yourself?

Did a vignette's main character strengthen your faith or turn your life around? 

Did he pull you down with him, or convince you to live your life differently? 

What did your experience teach you about God and His involvement in your life? 

Select details that pertain to your story and its focus. Write so your readers feel they’re acquainted with your most important characters.

Want some help? In this blog’s right sidebar, scroll down and click on The Bookshelf Muse icon. Once there, look through The Character Traits Thesaurus in the right column. You’ll have a lot of fun meandering through those resources!

*Related posts:

Are your stories important?

What is a memoir?

Capture your readers’ interest,


  1. Linda,
    I really like your point about showing how the "inner workings" of a character tie into the main theme of our story- otherwise, why are we including them? Lots of food for thought here as well as excellent links-more pearls to work with!
    Thank you.

  2. Hi, Kathy, I wish so much I had added more "inner qualities" to some of the key people in my memoir, especially Elizabeth. She taught me so much,and continues to do so. What an example of faith and courage she is!

    I look forward to reading your memoir, Kathy! :)


  3. Dear Linda,
    This was so interesting that as I never thought of doing a memoir, I may think of doing one now in the future. I took a corresponding course in writing children's stories, and a lot of what you said is in that course. good job. I'm really glad that joyful introduced us. Warmly Brenda

  4. Well, HI, Brenda! :) How nice of Joyful to "introduce" us to each other!

    DO think about writing a memoir. It can be as easy as writing short stories and putting them in a 3-ring binder, along with photos. Since you're into mixed media art, you could include lovely pages of photos and illustrations and memorabilia. I've done that and as you know, it's LOADS of fun!

    Let me know if I can help.