Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

March 7, 2018 § 15 Comments

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my memoir, so I started to study—along with novels and short stories—the memoirs I loved to figure out what techniques other memoirists had used.

I came up with this list as a starting-off point:

  • Physical description. This can include any relevant personal detail such as clothes (pink sunhat, red mittens), physical features (chipped tooth, big ears), gestures, how someone moves or walks (loping, limping), how someone sounds (when she/he sleeps, walks, talks, laughs, has sex), tics, facial expressions. Think unusual, specific, different.
  • Comparison/contrast. It’s especially helpful to use this when you have two main characters. Ann Patchett does this particularly well in her memoir, Truth & Beauty, by comparing herself to and contrasting herself with her friend Lucy Grealy. You can compare/contrast two characters’ physical selves, behavior, decisions, careers, personalities, habits, lifestyles, values, morals, beliefs, upbringing, families/backgrounds, language, types of partners each chooses, motivations, goals, the list is endless.
  • Obsessions and special possessions. Think about something a character collects or loves, an object she/he prizes or has special meaning, and/or something the character spends a great deal of time focusing on, hobbies, talents.
  • Quirks and pet peeves. In my memoir, I wrote about a character’s pet peeve when people slouched, which led to mentioning that character’s own strict, straight posture.
  • Everyday possessions. What does your character carry in a wallet or purse, a gym bag, the glove compartment, the car trunk? What objects does this person keep in a dresser drawer, or any drawer or closet? What is the character’s home/personal environment like? What is unique about it?
  • Documents/letters. Do you have documents related to your character? This could be business, real estate or any kind of legal documents, medical records, police or court records. What about letters? Perhaps business letters, but what about personal letters? Letters written by a character do a great job of revealing how the character thinks, the relationship between that character and another person, and in part what the character’s “voice” is like. What about calendars, diaries, journals, notes/articles/papers/books written by a character?
  • Speech/dialogue. Does your character have an accent? A favorite saying? Use slang or curse words? Have common phrases? Think about patterns of speech, diction, memorable comments the character made, stories the character likes to tell. Are there scenes you remember that show a conversation between two characters when there was something important at stake? What was not being said? How and when does/did this character use silence?
  • Photographs. Think about what the photo reveals, as well as what is absent from the frame.
  • Background. Consider someone’s family of origin, family size, religious upbringing, religion as an adult, culture of the character’s youth, socioeconomic level, education, political leaning, home state and city/town and how these might have influenced the person.
  • Major life events. What major events have happened in this person’s life that shaped the character? This could be anything from what was happening in the world (war, cultural shifts, political movements) to something happening in the character’s personal life (examples: death, marriage, divorce, job loss, arrest, assault, falling in love, heartbreak, mental health issues, sickness, recovery, addiction, graduation, pregnancy, birth, separation, grief, finding one’s calling).

This list is of course just the beginning. If you need some memoirs to study, I recommend these from my shelf of favorites: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty; Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling; and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping.

Most importantly, keep paying attention, and keep writing.

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017) and a forthcoming poetry and prose chapbook, None of Them Home (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Zone 3Fiction Southeast, Cider Press Review, and The Louisville Review, among others. Her website is           


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