RIGHT NOW YOUR FACEBOOK STREAM is as full of mine with those “Which rock song/Harry Potter character/movie great are you?” quizzes. You do know that those are mere data-stealers, and that each time you fill one out the Internet gains another chunk of your precious info, right? No? Well now you do. So stop filling out those and get back to your real work. But keep this in mind: Those quizzes have the appeal they do because we love and respond to iconic identifiers. If you let them, they’ll guide you to write good characterization in memoir.
Which Winnie The Pooh character are you? I have no idea, but I do know that we can all be sorted, identified and understood based on the characters from The Hundred Acre Wood, meaning that I know you will understand when I write of my family by stating that I am a Tigger, my sister is Kanga, my husband is Christopher Robin and that our daughter is Owl. Universal identifiers, these are also some of a writer’s best friends.
I’ve written about The Hundred Acre Wood before and how those characters are one of your best sources for characterizing the members of your family. Haven’t read Pooh? Think Peanuts or the Simpsons, or the characters in Greek mythology, and then use the character traits of those iconic personalities to help you fill in the people in your pieces and the role each plays.
What do I mean?
Maybe you have a complex negotiation scene in your current piece of memoir. Perhaps your sister and you are trying to put your mother in an assisted care facility and no one is budging: You know it’s time; as ever, your sister is trying to placate your mother, and your mother doesn’t want to leave her home, despite the fact that she is too disabled to care for herself on her own. The piece is good. Your idea is sound and you know what it’s about. But you are hobbled by the real time aspects of living and writing it at the same time. Everything seems flat, especially the people in the tale.
Step back. Step out. Think Pooh.
Try sentences like, “Given a chance to placate, my sister will placate. Practically born in an apron, she is a provider: Good and kind, she would prefer to struggle forever with the niceties than to spend one moment in conflict. Me, I played pirates as a kid and I’m still always itching for a fight: Knife in my teeth, sword at my belt, I’m the one who gets the job done, and mostly we’ve balanced one another. Until now.”
They are not the best sentences I’ve ever written, but they’ll do for a first draft, and I got there by thinking less of the actual people and more about which iconic characters they represent. I find this method is particularly helpful when amid one of life’s big dramas, tempers are flaring and my senses are too inflamed to write much more than worthless accusations and the she said/she said of life. No one can follow along on your angry she said/she said tirades, believe me.
I was reminded of this recently as I was editing a manuscript as part of my coaching services. The book will have enormous power when the writer can write more universally and a little less from the point of her rage. In rage, she excludes us from fully understanding her characters. (And yes, I asked her permission to tell you this). So I advised her to read some Pooh. Goodness knows, we’ve all been given worse writing advice along the way.
What’s your method for characterizing the people in your memoir?