Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Let no cardboard characters creep around in your memoir

I can’t remember the book’s title or author but, all these years later, I still recall the story’s main character—but not in a positive way. I knew nothing of her physical appearance, and almost nothing of her inner qualities. The author had created a stick figure.

So, when you write your memoir, write life and personality into your main characters because “No one wants to be known for writing flat, boring, cardboard characters,” says Carly Sandifer, * (emphasis mine).

Capture unique details about your main characters—physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

Reveal personality, idiosyncrasies, and heart.

Create characters your readers can experience in the important ways you experienced them.

You want multi-dimensional characters, memorable characters, compelling characters.

“ … Characters come alive when you pick the particularly telling details that can make the difference between a cardboard character and a real, live person. This is not a matter of throwing an abundance of details—say, of a person’s visual appearance—at the reader, but of selecting those few that capture the essence of that person … a quirk of speech, a mannerism, the way his hair falls across his face, an item of clothing, the smell or her, or how she walks.” (Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir)*

Remember, you want to show, not tell.* Instead of saying a lady was beautiful, describe her in such a way that your reader will conclude for himself, “She was beautiful!”

If one of your characters is smarmy, find words to show readers he’s creepy. Sinister.

If she’s weird, use words to show she’s strange. Bizarre. Eccentric.

If he’s intellectual, find words to show he’s cerebral. Scholarly.

Use words to show the following details about important people in your stories:

Generous or selfish.

Dull or quick-witted.

Charming or dreary.

Stand-offish or welcoming.

Gentle or gruff.

Tall or short.

Plump or skinny.

Composed or nervous.

Gloomy or merry.

Young or old.

Foolish or wise.

Erratic or steady.

Polished or frumpy.

Uncouth or refined.

Agile or awkward.

Hilarious or humorless.

“This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details  that might exist.…”

When you describe your stories’ main characters, use all five senses: Let readers see, smell, hear, feel, and taste what you experienced.

Then go the next step: Show, don’t tell, how you felt about that person. Why did you know you could call her, day or night, and she’d always be there for you? Why did he make you want to stay as far away as possible?

Then dig deeper still: What was God doing in or through this person that impacted your life? Maybe God used him or her in small ways, but, on the other hand, maybe He used that person to determine your life’s direction.

Answering that question—What was God doing?—might take a long time, but work hard on finding the answer(s) because that’s where you’ll find the blessings.

That’s where you’ll realize, more than ever before, that God, in His goodness, has been guiding you all along. 

*References and links

Carly Sandifer,

Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir,

Roy Peter Clark quoting Tom Wolfe,

My "Show don't tell" blog post,


  1. Hi, friends, I just read Diana Trautwein's blog post in which she does a lovely job of describing an important person in her life. You'll really enjoy it. Here's the link:

  2. Linda, This is such a great reminder for all of us to transport our readers into our stories by bringing our characters alive on the page.Diana's blog post on her spiritual journey is so powerful. Yes, she paints a picture with a message that resonates:"Be still long enough to let the beauty in,to let God in." Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing a shining example of "show,don't tell."

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed Diana's blog post, Kathy. I really liked it, too. :)

    I'm hoping the followers of my blog here will also follow yours because you are step-by-step advancing toward a finished, published memoir! You are showing the way for so many people! Hooray!