Writing Narrative Nonfiction: Characters and Author Responsibility

November 30, 2007
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story:  Writing Narrative Nonfiction

The Art and Craft of Characterization in Memoir:
Characters and Author Responsibility

by Lisa Dale Norton

December 2007

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

"That first voice we hear when we
read memoir is the voice
of the narrator ,
you, the writer. . ."

—Norton

Last month I introduced the topic of the Art and Craft of Characterization in Memoir and discussed differences between the terms Art and Craft. I want to stick with the idea of developing characters in memoir for a few months beginning with some bedrock thinking about who our characters are and what our responsibilities are, as writers of memoir, in creating those characters.

When I talk about characters in a work of memoir I am not only referring to the people who the narrator includes in the story (‹parents, children, relatives, mentors, friends, and enemies ) but also the narrator himself. That first voice we hear when we read memoir is the voice of the narrator , you, the writer, the hero of your story, and your first job when creating that character is to make the voice so rich, real, vivid, and authentic that the reader is drawn in eager to hear more, more, more, of what you have to say.

". . . you also need to commit to looking deeply inside yourself so that you can come to the page with wise insight . . . "
—Norton

How do you do this?

Obviously you need to use key tools of the writer –description that appeals to the senses, vivid settings, dialogue that mirrors personality –but you also need to commit to looking deeply inside yourself so that you can come to the page with wise insight, the audacity to make fun of yourself, and sweet compassion for your human flaws.

". . . you build, inside the mind ' s eye of the reader, a vivid narrator, a person readers want to listen to. . ."
—Norton

That kind of authenticity shows itself through the material you choose to share, the language you use, touches of humor, and humble honesty. It communicates itself right into the heart of the reader, and when you do that, you build, inside the mind ' s eye of the reader, a vivid narrator, a person readers want to listen to, a person they will come back to again and again.

Learning to be generous with yourself is a first step in creating such a character. Often when we look back at our lives we see memories that shame us, make us angry, or evoke guilt and self-recrimination. These emotions, when translated directly into the story, rarely work for readers. They need to be transformed. They need to be rolled onto their heads and re-envisioned with gentle understanding of our complicated past.

"Crafting our loved ones and people
we are angry with into believable characters on the page
is one of the hardest things
to do in memoir . . ."

—Norton

When we can do this with ourselves, we will be able to bring those same qualities to our portrayals of other characters in our stories. Crafting our loved ones and people we are angry with into believable characters on the page is one of the hardest things to do in memoir and one of the things that most stymies writers. They balk at the thought of expressing true emotions about people and representing them inappropriately. Yet, if we can bring compassion to our characterizations, this problem dissolves.

". . . when we can thoughtfully consider the human condition in our writing,
our memoir rises above
the pettiness of everyday life."

—Norton

And when we can do that, when we can thoughtfully consider the human condition in our writing, our memoir rises above the pettiness of everyday life. It utilizes Craft and makes Art.

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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