Character, Not Events, Drives Memoir
January 31, 2011
This past Saturday, I had one of those life-changing writer experiences. I attended a workshop on fiction writing given by the writer Pam Satran, whom I know. She’s a professional writer, and every so often, she gives a workshop on what she’s learned from writing a score of novels. She’s a brilliant, generous teacher. In eight hours, she taught me more about the craft of fiction than I’ve learned in all my years of reading.
I attended for two reasons. One, I do have a novel up my sleeve. Doesn’t everyone? I’d published a novel years ago, but I’ve written non-fiction for so long, that I wanted to learn Satran’s method when/if I turn to fiction next. Second, I wanted to see if there was anything Satran teaches that could help my own teaching practice, that could help my students. So I attended the daylong session wearing two hats, my writer’s hat, and my teacher’s hat.
And what a day it was! And how much I learned! And how much what I learned will change my writing practice and my teaching! (And those are more exclamation points than I’ve used in years.)
We were a group of nine – all women, as it turned out. Satran didn’t want us to talk about our ideas for novels, our novels-in-progress. She no doubt knew that that would get us nowhere. Rather, she wanted to demonstrate the method she uses to write her novels so that we could use it to write ours. She was showing us the process she goes through. And how generous that is!
First, we developed an idea for a communal novel. We did it as a group. I tossed something out. And then we all refined it. Satran stressed that you didn’t have to have a BIG idea to start a book. You could begin a book with a very small idea. Satran described how she began The Man I Should Have Married with a very small idea. She was going to a party in New York. She knew that a man she knew would be there. She mused, to herself, “Well, maybe that’s the man I should have married,” and as soon as she uttered that phrase to herself, Satran knew that she had enough to begin writing a novel.
Many of us think we need a VERY BIG IDEA to begin our work. No we don’t, Satran insists. We need an idea. Period. And that goes for memoir as much as it does for fiction.
Next, Satran had us brainstorm titles for our book. The title for Satran’s book was, of course, The Man I Should Have Married. That’s a great title, and she knew it. She believes – and I do too – that we should know the names of our books right from the start. They galvanize our work; they provide a roadmap for us. Yes, Satran says, titles change. Sometimes publishers insist we change titles. But most writers I’ve read about have a good working title for a book in progress. (And, in my case, I always also have a working title for the chapters in my book. They’re simple, concrete, not complex: “Boy Crazy,” “Combat Zones,” “War Games,” “The Bread”.)
With me so far? Step one: Small Idea. Step two: Title. We took all of, I’d say, five minutes to get this far in Satran’s eight-hour workshop.
Next – and this is the fascinating and important part – we moved on to creating characters. Not plot. Characters.
Satran believes that fiction grows out of character, that the events in a novel grow from characters that the writer takes a great deal of time to think about and to invent and create before s/he thinks through the plot line. (Satran studied with Elizabeth George, and this technique is described in George’s Write Away. I’ve started reading it since my seminar with Satran, and I’m finding it invaluable.)
We first made a list of nine characters that we thought should populate our novel. (I won’t go into the details.) Then Satran passed out what she called a “Character Template” and had each of us write a thoroughgoing description of one of the character. If this were our own novel, and not just a learning session, we’d fill out one of these for each of the characters.
At the beginning of her work on a novel, Satran spends much time doing this. She’ll spend an entire working day imagining a character. Or two days. Or more if necessary. She fills out a “Character Template” for each character, and she revises it as necessary as she works on her book, as she learns more about her character, or if her character starts shifting.
These are the categories she uses on her template. (I’ve revised hers somewhat): Name, other names, nicknames; Age; Height; Weight/Build; Birthplace: Hair/Eyes; Physical Distinguishing Features; Education, Interests, Passions; Occupation(s); Confidant; Enemies; Family and Relation to Its Members; Ambition (Fulfilled?); Always Wanted to Do But Never Did; Always Does but Doesn’t Want to Do; Always/Often Does But Shouldn’t; Never/Seldom Does But Should; Gestures/Mannerisms; Clothing; Home; Car; Strongest Character Trait; Most Troublesome Character Trait; Deepest Need; Ambition; How Character Behaves Under Stress; Laughs At; Cries About; Philosophy; Politics; Religion (Practicing?); Hobby; Vacation/Spare Time; Birthday Celebration?; What Others Notice First; What Character Does Alone; One-line Characterization; How Character Changes Over Time; Significant Event that Molded Character; Significant Event That Illustrates Personality.
After filling all this out, Satran had us free write something about the character that we hadn’t already included in our Template.
After the class, I made a basic Character Template for my own future work, typing these categories out — it’s a list of the above categories that’s two pages long with enough space between them for filling something in. I suggest you make one out too.
Now here’s the important insight I had about writing and teaching memoir.
After ten minutes, we’d developed rich, full characters. As I listened to their descriptions, I realized that we memoirists need to know as much about our “characters” as Satran does about hers. We might not use all this material, though we might. But thinking like this before we begin will force us to find out what we need to know that we don’t (when our grandparents were born and where, for example – which I put off finding out for way too long when I was writing Crazy in the Kitchen). And it will force us to put down on paper what we do know but what we take for granted – my father’s muscular fingers, his blackened nails from always working with machines, for example. It will help us “see” these characters before we begin writing about them.
In fact, as I think back to the writers I’ve worked with, I can say that “creating” real characters in the pages of memoir is perhaps more difficult than creating fictional characters in the pages of a novel. Why? It’s hard to “see” the familiar. So, if a novelist like Satran take weeks, or a month or so to nail down the essential traits of her characters before she begins to think about how these characters will interact, then I think we should too.
Many memoirists begin with events, rather than with character. And that’s how many memoirists get stuck. Because unless we think about character, first, we can’t possibly write about the causal links in the narrative, about the why of the narrative, about the significance of the narrative. Memoir is driven, not by events, but by character. Even the most fantastic events described without sufficient attention to character will fall short in memoir.
So. Memoir is not about what happened to us; it’s not simply about what happened to our characters. It’s about who we are, about who the other “players” in our memoir are, and how what happens grows out of and is affected by who we are.
After Satran has all her Character Templates filled out, after she’s given a great deal of thought to creating her characters, to refining them, she then moves on to “brainstorming” how these characters might interact. As a novelist, she has to invent these interactions, which will form the basis for scenes, for the “plot.” But as a memoirist, we have to remember the interactions between and among our characters and recreate them. But if we have our Character Templates filled in, if we think about who our characters are, then we can begin to list significant moments, significant events that will eventually grow into scenes. And we’ll know enough about our characters to create them as flesh-and-blood people, rather than as stick figures that we push through a retelling of the events of our lives.