Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Characters

Magnifying GlassI love writing fiction and creating my own world and the characters that inhabit it. Some fiction writers study charts and reference books on psychology to make sure their characters are believable and multi-layered. Some writers base their characters on real people, often combining several people they know into one. But memoirists have an advantage over their counterparts – the characters who inhabit their story are real, with flaws and quirks already built in.

Here are a few truths and techniques that fiction writers use to create believable characters. In the case of creative nonfiction, applying them can add fullness to your “built-in” characters and create an emotional response in the reader. 

1.   Characterization vs. True Character

People become, in our minds, what we see them do. This is the strongest, most irresistible form of characterization. ~ Orson Scott Card

You can characterize a person by using a physical description of the color of their hair and eyes, how tall they are, etc. These traits help a reader visualize a person, but they don’t tell us who that person really is. We only truly understand someone by their actions and the choices they make. Author Joe Bunting says, “We remember characters because they do interesting things. We forget characters whose favorite food is pizza.”

2.   Reveal Characters Gradually

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph. ~ Suzanne Sherman

Information dumps of any kind, whether of a setting or a character, drag the story down. Give us only the information we need as we need it. Weave in details of physical description, personal history, and personality traits a little at a time to reveal the character as the story unfolds.

3.   Include Motivation

If you’re writing nonfiction, what your characters do (or have done) is a matter of fact, perhaps even of public record. What may not be as evident is why they did it. Introducing your readers to the motivation behind a character’s actions will give a nonfiction piece more depth and, ultimately for the reader, more satisfaction. ~ Scott Francis

The reasons why we do things can begin in childhood or at any point in our lives, and some things build on others – we might be shy adults because we were bullied when we were young, and shyness can affect our choices throughout our lives. A soldier might want to make his family proud and so faces combat with courage. A single mom goes hungry to make sure her children eat. Sharing the story behind the story helps us to understand the why of things without necessarily making us agree with a person’s choices.

4.   Show Change (or not)

We love to see characters transformed. Mainly because we are being transformed. We know the painful but liberating feeling of ceasing to be one way and beginning to be another, especially if the new way results in more success in relationships or other areas of life we value. ~ Jeff Gerke

There are basically three types of characters (and people) – those that change for the better, those that change for the worse, and those that don’t change at all. In our lives we will probably know people who fall into all of these categories. Change can happen to us gradually or come on like a lightning strike, or we can be stubborn and fight it to the end. Showing us how a person deals with change reveals that person’s character.

5.   Reveal the Familiar

Think about a novel or a favorite movie – when we relate to a character, don’t we get more involved in her story, don’t we cheer her on? This aspect of familiarity could involve habits and mannerisms like fingernail biting or stuttering. It can also be related to the human condition, our shared fears and struggles, and our motivations. When we relate, we get emotionally involved.

6.   Other Details that Add Layers

The goal is to make your readers feel something for your character. The more they care about them, the more emotion they’ll invest in your story. ~ Tom Pawlik

Here are seven more points to consider when revealing character, taken from Tom Pawlik’s article “The 9 Ingredients for Character Development.” The answers to many of the questions in this list might not make it outright into your story, but they can translate to the page through a greater understanding of your characters.

  • Communication style: How does your character talk? Does she favor certain words or phrases that make her distinct and interesting? What about the sound of her voice? Personality comes through our speech.
  • History (related to motivations): Where does your character come from? What events shaped his personality? Was it a loving family or an abusive, dysfunctional one? What led him to the career choices he made?
  • Relationships: What kind of friends and family does he have? How does he relate to them? Is he very social or reclusive or somewhere in between? People can be defined by the company they keep, so this can be a good way to define character.
  • Ambition: What is her passion in life? What are her goals? What is her unrecognized, internal need that she’s trying to meet?
  • Character defect: Everyone has an irritating personality trait. Is he too self-centered? Too competitive? Too lazy? Too compliant? Too demanding of others? He’ll feel more real if he has some flaw.
  • Thoughts: What kind of internal dialogue does your character have (for a memoir, this is the narrator’s voice)? How does she think through her problems and dilemmas? Is her internal voice the same as her external?
  • Restrictions: More than a personality flaw, what physical or mental weakness does a character deal with or try to overcome? After all, even Superman had Kryptonite. This helps humanize your character, making her more sympathetic and relatable.

In writing creative nonfiction, recognizing these fiction techniques and applying them to your “built-in” characters can help bring your story, and the real-life people who inhabit it, to life.


5 thoughts on “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Characters

  1. Hello, I have been doing research on Character development for a course that I am taking during my Masters. I think that you have made an error here. The article that you have linked here is not written by Tom Pawlik! it was actually written by Chuck Sambuchino. Take a closer look at the article and you will see the error. You should fix this, for it could lead to trouble for you.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn. I think if you take another look at the article you’ll see that Chuck Sambuchino posted it to the Writer’s Digest site, but the article is a guest column by Tom Pawlik.


  2. Pingback: Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques | Cate Macabe

    • Thanks, Peter. Developing a character, and then getting him out of my head and onto paper has always been the hardest part of writing a story for me. I’ve never been able to get it right the first time. Thank goodness for critique partners!


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