Writing Narrative Nonfiction: Bringing Characters to Life: Details that Count

December 27, 2007
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story:  Writing Narrative Nonfiction

BRINGING CHARACTERS TO LIFE: Details that Count

by Lisa Dale Norton

January 2008

Lisa Dale Norton will be providing a one-hour interactive teleconference in the Authorlink Virtual Classroom January 23, 2008. Find details here.

". . .once we have those readers engaged in the quality of our voice, we need to develop characters who come to life. "
—Norton

Last month I wrote about building characters with compassion. That is the place we must start as writers of memoir so that we do justice to the people we represent in our tales. It is also the place out of which a gripping narrating voice rises. Readers listen to narrators who treat their characters (including themselves) with big-hearted compassion.

But once we have those readers engaged in the quality of our voice, we need to develop characters who come to life.

How do we do this?

This is not fiction. We do not make up details and patch them on to a person who appears in a scene. As memoirists we need to study the people in our lives. If those people exist now only in memory, then we study the pictures we have in our minds of these people. We watch them. We pay attention. We notice their mannerisms and speech patterns, their habits. What kind of clothes do they wear? What do they eat? What do they value? What would they die for?

". . . look for details from the lives of those people that are vivid and sensual . . . "
—Norton

When you create characters in your memoir, look for details from the lives of those people that are vivid and sensual–something you can touch, see, hear, smell, or taste. These must be well-chosen details that speak loudly for who each person is, details that say more than their surface appearance. There will be a kind of resonance that emanates from the collective weight of the details you choose, whether they be details of how a person looks, the words he uses, or the actions that fill his life. You can't tell everything, so the details you select must paint with just a few strokes, the essence of the person's personality.

For example, say you want to write about your grandmother. Well, you can simply give her a name and say you loved her, or you can tell readers she perched on a stool at the end of the counter in her kitchen sneaking Salem cigarettes when she thought no one was looking, that she heated her house with her gas stove and all the wallpaper was discolored because of it, that she stood barely five feet tall but laughed like a linebacker, that she drank Scotch and Squirt, that when she was twenty she danced late at night and called herself a flapper, and that when she married your grandfather she carried in her pocket a tiny gold porcelain shoe. She had no needlepoint hobbies; she didn't work in a garden, didn't sew or paint china, but she loved to cook. Her white sauce was admired around town. (She used it as the base for every recipe, it seemed.) When she got angry she closed her mouth in a tight little line and refused to say mean things about anyone. Her favorite words were: "Tell me more…."

". . . They crack open the essence
of who the person is. "

—Norton

These are details that count, details that when pulled together define a life. They crack open the essence of who the person is.

In a short memoir you might simply tell one memory about a person and an event you two lived. You¹d pull out all of these kinds of defining details to bring your character to life.

"In a longer memoir you just keep extracting from the memories
in your mind . . ."

—Norton

In a longer memoir you just keep extracting from the memories in your mind these kinds of key details that speak for the essence of the person, and you do that with each person who appears in the story. You name the objects and behaviors that capture the core values of who that person is, and you do it, or course, with loving compassion, even when you feel hurt or angry, or just plain sad.

   
About
Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR, will be released by St. Martin 's Press in Spring '08. She is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (Picador USA/St. Martin 's Press), a work combining memoir and nature writing. Lisa teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the power of story and the process of writing your own. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com

 

 

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