Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Write life into your memoir’s characters

Invite readers into your memoir by bringing life to key individuals in your stories.

Roy Peter Clark, one of my favorite writing mentors, writes:

“In the best of cases—when craft rises to art—the author conjures a character that seems fully present for the reader, a man standing against that very light post waving you over for a conversation.” (from Keeping it real: how round characters grow from the seeds of detail, 

I like that: characters that seem “fully present for the reader.”

Write in such a way that central people in your story become more than a shadow in the corner—more than a stranger to your readers.

Write so readers feel they’re beside you and your characters, reliving your experiences with you.

How? By including specific details about the key people in your stories.

For starters, pay attention to sensory details: If your reader had stood with you in the presence of that person—a pastry chef, for example, or a dairy farmer—what would your reader have seen, smelled, felt, heard, and tasted?

Think about talking to your dad when you were a kid: Can you still smell his aftershave? Or the beer on his breath?

Kathleen Pooler, in her vignette Seeds of Faith, writes of the smell in her great-grandmother’s room: I sat on the edge of the bed and she pulled me close.… ‘God bless, God bless,’ she whispered. The musty scent of age lingered as she gently rubbed my back.”

Kathleen also writes of her great-grandmother, Her tiny hands felt smooth, like a soft leather glove.”  (Seeds of Faith,

Pin down a character’s often-quoted sayings: “It doesn’t always happen to the other guy, y’know,” or “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about!” or “If I had a nickel for every time.…”

Write so your readers see a person’s idiosyncrasies and gestures. Did she live life at a half-run, or did she plod through life? Did he make people uncomfortable by standing too close when he talked to them? Did she bite her fingernails? Did he make a funny little noise in his throat when he was nervous?

Incorporate a person’s facial expressions. What did your boss’s eyes look like when he got mad at you?

When you hid in the woods and smoked cigarettes on the way home from school, how could you tell, when you got home, that your mother had already found out? What did her face look like—her eyes, her mouth? Did her nostrils flare? What was her voice like? Did she yell, or did she give you the silent treatment? Did she pinch your ear? Did she cry? Or laugh?

Here’s how Jen Puckett describes her brother in A Great Cloud of Witnesses:

“… Austen was now in critical condition. ‘Wait,’ I began to question within myself. “My brother? The brother who is a handsome, rugged, solid mass of body-builder muscle? Whose fully tattooed arms I can’t fit both my hands around? My brother who has proudly walked away from many drunken bar fights with scars and wounds that he never even noticed? My brother whose square jaw, goatee, and gruff voice are characteristics of a down and dirty Harley Davidson lover? This brother? He can’t be lying almost lifeless in a hospital.…”

Note that Jen doesn’t include every detail about her brother’s appearance—she tells us nothing about his hair color, eye color, or height; they are irrelevant in this story. Jen gives us details only pertaining to Austen’s current predicament.

Pull out your rough drafts and breathe life into your stories' main characters. “… Pull your reader closer … into a sensory world that you and your readers can inhabit together” (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir).

Next time: Beyond sensory details


  1. Thank you so much Linda for your lovely mention of my sweet Great-Grandma Rose! I really appreciate it.

    Your post is rich in detail and filled with pearls, especially the link to the article about "keeping it real" I always feel like I am gathering fuel for my journey whenever I read your posts. Thank you for all you share to help us in our own journeys,



  2. Kathy, your "Seeds of Faith" had such vivid descriptions. Even though it has been a while since I read it, the images are still clear in my mind. That's good writing! Thanks for your inspiration today! :)