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.



17 Responses to “Character, Not Events, Drives Memoir”

  1. Nancy Says:

    Thanks Louise for this. Pam was a wonderful addition to our panel on your work at AIHA. She sounded then like an excellent teacher and you have proven my theory right! Nancy

  2. Mary McTigue Says:

    Dear Louise,
    I was signed up for this event but couldn’t attend because of a family crisis. Thanks so much for sharing so much of it in such detail. I’m very impressed and plan to attend the next Pam Satran event. Thanks to you for making me want to.

  3. Alice Carney Says:

    Louise, thank you for the very clear and generous post. I run memoir writing workshops and I am going to post in huge letters, Character drives story (plot, memory, memoir.
    Your students are lucky to have you to guide them.

  4. Marianne Says:

    Louise, Thank you for the informative post. As an apprentice memoir writer I can use all the help I can get. I did not realize that the character development is the first step, I always approuch the process from the event/experience I am writing about. Now, however, I see things differently.

  5. Jennifer Cruz Says:

    This is an invaluable post for novice and experienced memoirists. I am sure I will see the “character template” implemented in my work. The template gives no much “meat” to work with when creating or shaping existing characters. Thank you for this post.

  6. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    What surprised me is that we should have a tentative title from the beginning. I never have a title and what I come up with is usually too cliche. Her characteristic list is similar to one that I completed in a creative writing course. I did not know that the same could be applied to memoir writing. I will definitely have my character’s list filled out. This will make it so much easier to portray them in the text.

  7. I wish the title of a book or piece of work is the first thing on my mind. To be honest, it is the hardest thing for me. Even throughout school, I could not figure out a title for any of my papers. In my personal writings now and in my short stories, I rarely give them titles, and when they do have a title I am never confident in them. Characters, however are my favorite part and the most detailed part of my works.
    I take a lot of pride in my character development, mainly because I am so observant and because I enjoy noticing and retelling everything about the people who are in my writing. I do start with a small idea. A certain person that I see on the street will give me an idea just by looking at me. The stranger on the street has on opaque tights. My mother used to wear opaque tights all the time when I was a young girl, and BOOM! There goes my short memoir on the beauty of my mother I was once so obsessed with. Out of that short remembrance comes the event of losing my aunt, which was during the time my mother wore opaque tights.
    A lot of the characters in my memoirs are real, and sometimes fictional characters are placed in there. Either way, character are my favorite to work on.

    • writingalife Says:

      Sometimes the title just “comes.” And we reject it. I always hear the title long before the piece is near done, and it really helps. So I’d suggest listening to your inner voice.

  8. Monica Carr Says:

    I recently took an Acting Class by Austin Pendleton, taught by Uta Hagen, and it is a Master Class. The same applies for good technique for Acting. Character study prior to scene work is critical, although most of it is not implied in the written word, the homework of character study shows in the performance. I remember having to create a private moment for a character. Really great stuff, Louise. Thanks.

  9. Danielle Says:

    I attended the workshop Pam held after that one and it truly was a wonderful and informative experience. I’ve noticed that one issue I have with my writing is that I’m always caught up in the characters’ heads. I put a lot into my characters because I’ve always believed that they are essential to make any piece of writing come alive. Right now there’s this small piece in my memoir in which I go back to a time when my protagonist was a girl in school hanging out with her friends. There isn’t much room for their description since they aren’t really major, but they seem to just be floating there.

    • writingalife Says:

      Hi Danielle,

      A way out of this bind is to imagine what they’re saying and doing. Where do they “hang out”. What do they do when they hang out?

      That might get you to see them in this way.


  10. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    Dear Louise,
    In response to your blog post’Characters,Not Events,Drives Memoir,’ I was able to expand on my understanding of how to approach memoir writing. While constructing the two drafts of my final memoir,I was uncertain about how to bring my characters to life on paper. The strategy of making a list of what I know about each character helped me the approach of putting the third draft of my final memoir together. By making these lists, I stripped my memoir without even knowing. I discovered my memoir turned from me writing about my high school years to the seperation between my mother and stepfather.
    I also did the same exercise in class. I was
    not fully concious of the purpose for making these lists for the characters. The character list is not just for bringing these faces to life, but for actually building the tone and internal structure of the memoir. The memoir has become more rich with scenes and scenelets which has made the memoir
    writing process easier.

    Thank You!

  11. xxnettie09xx Says:

    I like the character templet idea its to get a list of what the character’s physical details are and what they like. I do this with many of my characters. I make a mini list about them, but I never rally wrote what the person was like.By having what the person/character is like brings them to life. I like this idea also because it will give me a check list to make sure I have everything I want to make the character more life like.

  12. Lisa Gulvin Says:

    Thank you for sharing the character templet idea. I am working on a memoir piece and some of the characters are foggy. I believe this exercise may help me bring them back as whole, rich, interesting figures.

  13. Peter Orozco Says:

    Thank you for this informative response. I am just beginning to explore the world of writing, and it’s wonderful to get this kind of advice so early in my exploration. I always wondered what could make a memoir interesting without having to travel to the moon or live in a cave for fourteen months. Focusing on the characters first will help greatly in my developmental writing. Thank you again.

  14. Scott Moul Says:

    “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 . . . 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”

    This is a practical suggestion, indeed. In my current piece, I feel that I have seriously underdeveloped characters. Not that there are many characters, to begin with (oops, another little problem). I seem to be writing about myself, place, and the people who happen to be in the place with me. Everyone who isn’t me is a secondary character, with the exception of inanimate locales.

    It is too late for me, I fear. In this semester, I mean. Due date is fast approaching and I need to focus on many other classes, as well. In the future, though, I think I will try Satran’s suggestions and apply them, as you did, to memoir writing. Thank you, as always, for great insight.

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