Make the People in Your Memoir Interesting and Memorable

by Memoir Mentor on August 2, 2009

legsPeople are the heart of your personal history, so you want to get them right. If your people come across as dull and lifeless, so will your story. It’s as simple as that.

You want your readers to visualize the people in your life the way you experienced them. How do you do this? Try borrowing some techniques from fiction writers. Novelists know how to make their characters seem so real we feel like we know them. You can do the same with the people in your life story.

In the next few posts I’ll discuss some of these techniques. Here’s the first:

Focus on Specific Details Unique to Your Character

Too often writers focus on general characteristics that could describe nearly anyone—“My mother was short and stout in middle age.” How’s that for a string of generalities that could be said about myriads of women? There’s nothing there that grabs my attention. How about this?

My mother developed a middle-age spread in her fifties, but she always kept her good-looking legs. Dad always called her “Legs,” and he liked it when she wore high heels and skirts that showed her knees.

This feels more like a specific individual rather than some generic middle-age woman. It piques my interest in her and the relationship she had with her husband.  

Here’s another example, this one from Tobias Woolf’s bestselling memoir This Boy’s Life. Notice the specific detail he uses to describe his step-father, Dwight.

Dwight was a short man with curly brown hair and sad, restless brown eyes. He smelled of gasoline. His legs were small for his thick-chested body, but what they lacked in length they made up for in spring: he had an abrupt, surprising way of springing to his feet. He dressed like no one I’d ever met before—two-toned shoes, hand-painted tie, monogrammed blazer with a monogrammed handkerchief in the breast pocket.

I can picture this man because of the specific, individualizing detail. I particularly like the detail about Dwight smelling like gasoline. I won’t forget that because it jars with his carefully planned attire. I feel convinced that Woolf knew this individual well.

Your assignment:

  1. Review what you have written about the people in your life and see if you have captured what’s unique about them. What stood out about their appearance and personalities? What was memorable about the way they moved or sat? What were their quirks? What would a stranger notice about them? Make a list of what needs to be included in your descriptions. Bring out these details and the people in your story will become more memorable and “real.”
  2.  Browse through some of your favorite novels and memoirs written by authors whose writing you admire. Notice how they describe their characters. Note the specific detail. What works? How could you apply their techniques to your writing? Try it.

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