Bringing Your Memoir Characters to Life – Part I

You’re painting word pictures of your memoir characters.

In your mind, you can see them, hear them and maybe even smell them.

Thinking about them brings certain sounds and tastes to mind, perhaps vivid memories of the giggling of children or the taste of rich chocolate ice cream from that time you and your 10-year-old friends sneaked into the kitchen for a late-night snack during a sleepover.

But while you know your characters well, your readers don’t. They have no idea how these people look, sound, dress or smell; how they think and behave; what drives or delights them; which jokes they laugh at and what brings tears to their eyes.

As a memoir writer, it is your job to bring these characters to life. And the better you do so, the richer and more emotionally-engaging your memoir will be. If you have trouble bringing your characters to life, ask a few questions.

Ask your memoir characters a question: “Who are you?”

The process of giving life to your memoir characters begins with your thinking long and hard about who these people are. Begin by imagining that you can ask each of your characters this simple, direct question: “Who are you?” How would that person respond? Ask this question and more, and take note of the answers. Then, make a list of words and phrases that describe each character – the longer the list, the better you will be able to develop your characters.

Start with the routine stuff

To help define each character, pretend you don’t know that person and start with basic questions such as:

  • What is your age, gender, race, ethnicity and religion?
  • Where are you from?
  • How would you describe your family of origin?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • Where do you live?
  • Are you married?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • What are your favorite foods, sports teams, colors and songs?
  • What books or magazines do you read; which websites do you frequent?
  • What do you dislike doing?

Now get pushy

Once you’ve gotten past the basic stuff, begin to delve into the personal – asking questions you might hesitate to ask in real life, such as:

  • What do you love and hate about yourself, and why?
  • What’s your darkest secret?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What would make you murder a person?
  • What would make you throw aside all your dreams to follow another person?
  • What do you most regret about your life?
  • What makes you proud of yourself?

Don’t be afraid to be probing and obnoxious. This is all imaginary, so there will be no price to pay!

Then ask yourself….  

Now, move on to a third set of questions, but ask yourself these things about each character. Things like:

  • What does she look like, dress like?
  • What is his voice like? What kind of accent does he have, which words does he favor?
  • What are the most likable and irritating things about her?
  • What is really unusual about him?
  • What is she thinking?
  • Is he trustworthy?
  • What is her greatest strength and greatest weakness?

The more you learn about your characters, the more real you or your professional ghostwriter can make them seem in the pages of your memoir.

Know thy memoir characters

Keep asking questions and writing down answers until you can write a description of each character that is so complete, you’ll know what that person would do in virtually any situation. Only then should you begin writing and developing your characters in the memoir.

If you’d like help writing your memoir…

Contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the memoir ghostwriters. Use the contact form on this page to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.

To learn more about memoirs and memoir writing, see our “Memoir Ghostwriter” discussion. And for more on ghostwriters and ghostwriting in general, read our “What is a Professional Ghostwriter?” page.