You, as a memoirist, want to write about people that “readers bond with and root for,” writes Angela Ackerman, “and this happens because of one very important word: EMPATHY.”
“When characters are unique yet well-rounded and familiar in some way, we connect with them,” Angela continues. “We empathize with what they are going through, become tense when trouble hits, and relax when they emerge in one piece. We care about what happens to them because our emotions are engaged.”
You and I, as memoirists, have a big responsibility: to create realistic, fleshed-out main characters in our stories—not all the people, but central figures. Our job: craft believable individuals.
The stars of our narratives, the heroes, need to have:
- blind spots,
- and failures.
What trait is most prominent? His worst trait? Her most endearing trait?
What is his passion? What are her life’s goals? Did he drop out of high school to fight in World War 2? Does she have her PhD?
We pinpoint what makes these details unique within the context of our lives and stories. If she’s wealthy, or if he’s just barely scraping by—and if that is significant info for our readers—then we include it.
We use all five senses to round out our main characters. We let readers see, smell, hear, feel, and taste what we experienced with our heroes.
Does she usually smell like lilacs? Or garlic? Does he have red hair and freckles? Does she have dark skin and white hair? Does he smell like coal because he works in a coal mine? Do you wish he used deodorant? Are her hands soft and well-groomed, or are they rough and chapped? What does his voice sound like? Is she cute as a bug’s ear? Does he have a birth defect? Does he wear too much aftershave? Is she super-organized? Is he sloppy?
We want our readers to feel they know our main characters and can relate to them, care about them.
Analyze and then include your main characters’ body language: “Sometimes what people say without actually speaking tells us a whole lot more than what comes out of their mouths,” writes Melissa Donovan at Writing Forward blog. “Using body language to communicate is natural. We all understand it intuitively.… [C]losely observe people’s body language and learn how humans speak without words so you can bring unspoken communication into your writing.”
Our readers want to enter our stories with us. They want to identify with us, bond, cry, laugh, worry, and hang in there with us all the way to the end.
You’ll enjoy reading more about creating empathy through action, a person’s flaws, self-doubts, and mistakes in Angela’s post, “3 Quick Tips To Help Readers Connect To Your Hero.” (Keep in mind the post is about developing fictitious characters, but Angela’s tips are important for real people in your memoir. Just be sure you’re honest and accurate in fleshing out your real person!)
Again: Include only those details that are unique within the context of your stories. If a bit of description is significant info for your readers, include it.
More next week on fleshing out our main characters.