Your Mother is a Real Character

December 2, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

It is easy in memoir – too easy – to just insert the word ‘mother’ and imagine your readers know exactly what you mean. You, the writer, have such a vivid set of associations with those six letters – m-o-t-h-e-r – that as you write, and as you revise, the woman who raised you (and perhaps vexed you) is alive and breathing, walking across the page.

For you.

But not for us. 

If you are going to write about Mom, you need to treat her like a character, present her in all of her complexity. You need to paint us a picture of your mother vivid enough that she will intrigue us throughout, just as a novelist would when creating a person out of pure imagination. Though the people we write about in our memoirs are very real, they still must function as characters on the page, because we – your readers – have never met these people.  

And by picture, I don’t mean a static description: hair, clothes, weight, age.

To better understand, think of what transpires when you meet someone, in real life. You may form an instant impression, based on clothing, physical characteristics, maybe even a “gut reaction,” but what you do next is watch and wait. “Let’s see how they act,” you think to yourself. “Give it a little while and we’ll see what sort of person they really are.”

This basic human instinct to form conclusions based on “what you see with your own eyes,” on your judgement of a person’s character, functions no differently in writing. When a reader encounters a new person on the page – and this is true whether this character is fictional or a real person captured in nonfiction – the reader (perhaps unconsciously) thinks. “Let’s see how this person acts. Then I’ll make up my mind what kind of person she is.”

Even your mother. Just because you love her, or are irked at her, or understand her, or find her endlessly puzzling, you can’t assume we as readers feel any of this. And you can’t just tell us what to feel or think about her. We’ll hear you, but we won’t be convinced.

You need to show us how she walks, how she talks, how her eyes squinch when she is confused, what she says, what she fails to say, how she folds and unfolds a tea towel when she is upset, and most importantly, how she treats others around her.

Then we will believe.


I’ll be teaching a webinar – They Walk! They Talk! Secrets to Writing Engaging Characters and Vivid Dialogue – next week for Creative Nonfiction, using examples from Cheryl Strayed, Kiese Laymon, and Kathryn Harrison, to further examine the nuts and bolts craft elements that allow “real people” to become living, breathing characters in a memoir or essay.

We will also explore the importance of compassion when writing about others, especially family members who may not always have acted well.

Finally, we’ll examine dialogue as a tool for creating lively and believable characters, and consider the challenges of capturing how “real people” talk.

This webinar is for writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process. Prompts and brief writing exercises will be included.

Here are the facts:

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020 / 2 pm – 3:15 pm ET

$15 / Advance registration required.

Hope to see you there.

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