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On characterization in memoir

Representing characters as real people is arguably the most integral – and the most difficult – aspect of memoir.

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Memoir is one of the most important forms of storytelling. As we read, we are exposed to a powerful cocktail of emotions that subconsciously lures us into becoming another person, even for just a moment. In the pursuit of absolute truth, we rifle through our own flawed memories, sweat over ever cadence, and grapple with ghosts long believed to be dead. 

Memoir is art, but art is not an exact science, particularly when it comes to representation.

Representing characters as real people is arguably the most integral – and the most difficult – aspect of memoir. Simply put, memoir is not all about you. Instead, it is a reflection of the truth, the emotion, or the experience you have garnered along the way. None of this is possible without other people, even if in a limited capacity. So while memoir is your story, other people guide the direction and conflict inside.

Memoir is art, but art is not an exact science, particularly when it comes to representation. After all, how could our words possibly mimic the complexity that is the human soul? The form is intrinsically imprecise: Two-dimensional words cannot ever fully represent three-dimensional human beings, in spite of our best efforts. But they do offer us a choice; a temptation to demonize or idolize those we remember instead of treating them as complex, fleshed-out people.

Writing human beings as “characters” is chief among all sins of the writer. Unfortunately, it’s painfully easy to turn people into flat characters, especially in a format so focused around recoloring the past. But memoir cannot deal in monochrome: It requires the writer to paint the human experience with successive shades, emotions, and textures. It is a form to be treated with respect – and caution.

When people are turned into characters by memoirists, they risk more than just their story; they also risk a lawsuit. Augusten Burroughs, bestselling author of the book Running with Scissors, needed to reclassify his memoir as fiction after a lawsuit was submitted by some people portrayed in the book. James Frey dealt so heavily in the realm of fiction that his characters (much like his story) offered no real substance. 

I’ve been tempted to demonize people in my own writing, particularly an acquaintance from my past. Naive (and frankly stupid), I allowed myself to be involved in a predatory friendship that evolved into two years of stalking. Though I knew memoir might help me process the situation, it was still painfully difficult to write about. I could feel it clearly whenever I tried to type the first few words. Like an animal, I was afraid to look him in the eye. After so many years of creeping through uncomfortable memories, I finally gave myself permission to write him as he really was. It gave me a peace beyond what I believed memoir could give and let me put the pencil down for the last time. Ultimately, I was able to create a real person I could finally lay to rest.

Characterization in memoir should not be hamfisted. Neither should it be furtive, secretive, or even shameful. Rather, it should be a celebration. We should celebrate the reclaiming of our pasts, seeing people in a new, more complex light. We should celebrate an art form that allows us to grant grace, and, sometimes, forgiveness. View your characterization as a way to view the world as the ultimate writer, someone thoroughly detached from the words that are only used to build characters, not people.

There are a few tactics that can be employed to successfully incorporate people in our memoir, specifically without resorting to flat characterization. While they may not always be useful in every piece, they can help to guide your work toward holistic character arcs. Rather than simply telling a story, you are breathing color into a memory that you share with many others.

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1. Get others’ perspectives.

First is one of the most important aspects of characterization: avoiding writing fiction. Simply put, we must not be careless with our memory hunting. In our desire to tell the best (or most salable) story, a temptation to blend fiction with our lived experiences can be overwhelming. This temptation to fictionalize affects even published memoirists, as Frey and so many others have proven. This is where additional readers can be extremely helpful. Sharing your work with the people in your memoir in addition to self-auditing allows you to be more critical of the work you produce, corroborating your memories and adding additional detail to ensure you tell the truest story possible.

2. Show, don’t guess. 

Another important memoir technique is found in the five senses. Rather than explaining what someone thought or what they felt – because it’s very difficult to know with full confidence what someone else is thinking or feeling – explore the observations you made about them in each interaction. Did their voice break over the phone? What did their body language remind you of? Did their words say one thing, but their body indicated another? These nuances can be a crucial tool in the hands of the right memoirist.

3. Give it time.

Although it is maybe a more difficult art to embrace, distance is a critical element to good memoir. It’s difficult to see our memories (and the people in them) from all sides if the memory is too fresh. In the past, getting distance has been used by many successful memoirists to disconnect themselves from painful memories. Tara Westover, author of the award-winning and mega-bestselling memoir Educated, uses the power of time and space to paint a strained relationship with her parents. She positions herself this way by using past tense and standing emotionally apart from her writing. She writes, “I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.” This alone is the most powerful representation of distance I have read in modern memoir.

 

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Always balance what you know with what you think you know, and allow your words to stretch for something larger than yourself. Write in truth, characterize in honesty, and above all, strive for something greater. Your story deserves the truth it commands. 

—Meagan Shelley is a professional writer living on the East Coast. When she’s not helping people write words, she’s creating her own. She firmly believes that man is the storytelling animal.

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