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Writing My Memoir #5: Developing Myself As A Character

Allen Skyy, Flickr Creative Commons

Somewhere in the middle of my work with my editor, I became suddenly struck with how one-sided “I” appeared on the page.

I set about making myself a character (not a caricature)… not to say my book is perfect, but I did learn in this process and wanted to share my thoughts with you. Here are three ways I focused on developing myself as a character:

1. I embraced contradiction
We’re all contradictions in one way or another, and that’s what makes us human. As a teenager, in particular, I was a walking contradiction. I think most teenagers are, as we grasp to find ourselves. In the first draft of my book, Carly-The-Character was super shy and insecure. In this version, I got tied up in Pentecostalism because the church people showed me love and helped me feel like I belonged somewhere. Yes, that is true, but it’s also just one layer. I was also loud and brave and smart. It was harder to bring both aspects of my nature to the page, but it’s more real and more interesting. This is just one of many areas I tried to embrace contradiction with my character. Another one is later in the book when I’m completely on fire for God. In the first draft, I’m on fire for God because I want to do what’s right. But again, that was just one motivation. In later drafts, I was able to get to deeper, more complex motivations, such as the need to feel important. A lot of my character’s actions in the plot were because I thrived off this feeling of importance my spiritual life gave me. Both the desire to do the right thing and the desire to be important can coexist within a character. Which brings me to my next point.

2. I allowed my character to do bad things

Because of the nature of the story (young girl gets brainwashed by fundamentalist church), in early drafts, my character looks kind of blameless. Which is not only annoying but not true. In later drafts, I showed my character doing things to hurt others. From the beginning, I included the story of how my heart had been broken by a boy in the church, but it didn’t occur to me until much later that I had done the same to someone else, in a significant way. Without giving away too much, this scene where I am the villain changes the story. I think it’s hard as memoirists to go as hard on ourselves as we do on others, but it’s important that we do.

3. I kept coming back to my “wants”

For a long time, the book read as a sort-of essay collection that could have been titled All The Crazy Shit That Happened in Church. The problem with this is it was all stuff happening to me instead of because of me. My character became this passive object that things would happen to. To get away from that, in every scene I’d ask myself what Carly-the-Character wants. The scenes still involved the crazy stuff that happened, but the driving force behind them was my character’s motivations–and the motivations that led to more conflict. I became an active part of the story instead of a passive presence. Without my “wants,” there’s nothing holding the story together. Following my wants helped me navigate my character’s arch as well and track my growth (because a character who doesn’t change in the story is a flat character.)

This process was challenging but necessary. In memoir, everything rises and falls from its characters. If the protagonist isn’t developed, the whole thing falls apart.

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