For the past two Thursdays, we’ve looked at ways to polish your memoir and make it as user-friendly as possible: After all, you want people to read it—but you want more than that: You want them to feel immersed in it. You want readers to experience what you experienced.
Today we’ll focus on creating realistic characters. (You don’t need to flesh out every person in your memoir, but readers want to get acquainted with your main characters.)
What are your character’s most significant features and actions and habits and mannerisms? Include sensory details—details pertaining to the five senses: seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.
In The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin’s main character, Talmadge, looks like this—this is what she wants the reader to see:
“His face was as pitted as the moon…. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull…and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red. His lips were the same color as his face…. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue…. and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub’s….
“His arms were sun-darkened and flecked with old scars. He combed his hair over his head, a dark, sparse wing kept in place with pine-scented pomade.”
Develop a multi-dimensional person: go beyond a physical, sensory description. What was endearing about her? Annoying about him? Comical, scary, heroic? What did she obsess over? And was that a good or bad obsession? What did other people say or think about that person?
Frederick Buechner writes of New Testament character Paul:
“Paul’s mads were madder and his blues bluer, his pride prouder and his humbleness humbler, his strengths stronger and his weaknesses weaker than almost anybody else’s you’d be apt to think of…. [H]is contemporaries accused him of being insincere, crooked, yellow, physically repulsive, unclean, bumbling, and off his rocker.” (from Wishful Thinking and later from Beyond Words)
Peel back layers:
Readers need to know what was happening between the lines.
What was happening beneath and beyond the sensory details?
What was going on inside?
What were that person’s thoughts?
What was it about the person’s history,
that impacted your life?
For example, Frederick Buechner writes,
“Like her father, my grandmother had little patience with weakness, softness, sickness. Even gentleness made her uncomfortable, I think—the tender-hearted people who from fear of giving pain, or just from fear of her, hung back from speaking their minds the way she spoke hers.” (The Sacred Journey)
Your goal is to accurately portray the most important people in your stories without overdoing it. Know what information to include and what to leave out: Include relevant details; leave out irrelevant ones. If your character was an avid fisherman and a Kansas City Royals fan but those details have no relevance to your story, you can probably leave out that information.
“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. In the best of cases—when craft rises to art—the author conjures a character that seems fully present for the reader….”
Revise and polish your memoir in those places where
your main characters need to come to life.
Develop people your readers can visualize, but go beyond that:
create living, breathing, vibrant,
memorable, significant characters.
Choose precise words to briefly but adequately flesh out
the most important aspects of key people,
people who are believable, knowable, and well-rounded.
If you can achieve that,
your readers will feel acquainted and connected
with your memoir’s most important characters.
If you missed the last two Thursday posts, click on: