The "I" as Character

by: Karen Propp

In memoir, the main character is YOU. Although you may be writing about other people important to you, the fact remains that when you write “I” you are speaking as both the narrator and the main character. In fact, one of your major tasks as a memoir writer is to show your character, to interest the reader in your character, and to develop your character. One of the central preoccupations of the contemporary memoir is the self. Writing about your self as well as about yourself in memoir is an experience that can rival many hours spent in an analyst’s chair. That doesn’t mean that writing is therapy, or even that writing replaces therapy if therapy is what you need, but it does mean that the contemporary memoir shares many of the same concerns as modern psychology. Certain branches of psychotherapy talk about the healing importance of “telling one’s life story” as a way to find meaning. One could argue that in today’s managed-care, pharmaceutically driven world of mental health providers, the memoir is one of the few places where you are still free to explore and learn about the self.

Although the exploration of character in memoir shares some of the same concerns of psychoanalysis, the creation of character in memoir shares the concerns of fiction writing. Creating an “I” in a good memoir relies as much on tricks of the trade as it does on your willingness to dig deep.

If you apply the “rules” about character creation to your portrayal of yourself, your memoir will surely become that much livelier.

You might think that handling characters is easy in a memoir because you’re simply using the people you know in real life. But it’s not so simple. Often the weakest characters in fiction are the ones that are based too closely on real life people. Because the writer knows the people so well, he often fails to give us crucial information about them. Or he gives us too much information. Or he fails to see the person in a balanced way. And the danger is even greater when the writer is basing a character on himself. Obviously the memoir writer faces the same traps.

Let’s say you’re writing about your mother. Well, the reader does not know your mother at all. If you say she has “gray hair,” then that’s all we know. If you say she has “gray hair that undulates in a snakelike way,” then we know a little more. If you say she has “gray hair that undulates in a snakelike way, matching her venomous personality,” then we know even more. And so on.

In a sense you are creating your mother for us by choosing what to say or not say. And this is why you must think of the people in your memoirs as literary creations. You will not fabricate any fundamental details about them, but you will carefully modulate the way you present these people to the reader. Thus, they are not merely people you know; they are characters in a piece of writing.

Often the people you know in real life who are eccentric, unreliable, or otherwise “off-color,” while not perhaps model citizens, can often make terrific characters. Similarly, people who have caused you the most trouble or heartbreak often make for rich material. Treasure these people.

DIMENSION

You want to make sure that your characters have dimension. That is, that they have the kind of complexity and fullness and individuality that people have in real life. The people you’re drawing on for your characters certainly have dimension; it’s your job to imbue their characterizations with that same dimensionality.

The novelist E.M. Forster coined the terms “round” and “flat” characters. Round characters have dimension. Flat characters are usually defined by a single trait, and that’s enough for them.

The best way to give your characters dimension is to understand their desires and contrasts.

DESIRE

Desire lies at the heart of any good character. Desires determine what people do, or at least want to do. Knowing a character’s desire will make the character easier to write, and more dynamic on the page.

In memoir, this doesn’t mean that you fabricate desire. You just need to put your finger on the driving desires within the people you’re writing about. Rest assured, every human being has desires. Even a person who spends most of the day lounging about flipping through magazines has a desire. Perhaps this person has a desire to get out and change the world but just hasn’t worked up the nerve to give it a go. Perhaps the person’s desire is to possess the goods and perfect lifestyles portrayed in the magazine’s glossy advertisements. Or perhaps this person’s desire is just to read his magazines in peace. Either way, it’s a desire.

Desire is especially crucial for a memoir’s main character--you. You, in the story, will need to be driven by a desire and desire, in turn, is what will drive the story. Here’s where the soul searching comes into play. A memoir is a place where you can be honest about your desires, be they noble or, more likely, self-serving.

CONTRASTS

The least interesting characters are usually stereotypes. The dumb model, the sensitive poet, the abusive alcoholic, etc. But no person in real life is a stereotype. If you look closely enough, everyone has a unique accumulation of traits that make every single person as individualistic as a fingerprint.

At the most basic level, this means that no character should be all good or all bad. Every one in real life has a mixture of both so-called “good” and “bad” qualities, and so should characters.

A character who is perfect in every way is actually rather boring. One of the things that makes St. Augustine’s Confessions so compelling is that he admits to leading a life of debauchery before his religious conversion. It’s almost a convention in memoir writing to admit to your flaws, even if those are traits you might not want to admit to people in real life.

The mother in James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, would be a good candidate for sainthood. After being disowned by her Orthodox Jewish family for marrying a black man, she proceeded to raise twelve children, mostly single-handedly (her husband died), and even though there was little money, all earned from her full-time job as a typist, she ensured that her kids were clothed and fed and safe and that each one of them went on to get an advanced degree. At the age of sixty-five, when her children were out of the house, she earned her own degree in social work and began a life of volunteer work in her community. In addition she was brave and devout and wise enough to teach her children that “God is the color of water.”

But the woman had her flaws, and the writer includes them. She was stubborn and secretive and suspicious and McBride even dares to point out:

"Mommy could not cook to save her life. Her grits tasted like sand and butter, with big lumps inside that caught in your teeth and stuck in your gums. Her pancakes had white goo and egg shells in them. Her stew would send my little brother Henry upstairs in disgust."

A person who is utterly evil in every way may not be dull. There is, after all, something deliciously interesting about villains. But a villain with some sympathetic qualities is even more compelling. Furthermore, if you write about a villain from your own life without showing anything sympathetic about the person, it may seem you’re writing out of spite rather than painting a complete portrait.

HOW IS THE "I" RELATED TO THE AUTHOR?

Writers of first person fiction are continually badgered by questions of is that you? (Unless of course a petite female author’s protagonist is a running back for a professional football team). Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of most novels (“this is a work of fiction and all resemblance to real people and places is coincidental, etc), the line between fact and fiction seems to remain blurred in the reader’s mind.

But what about the first person narrator in memoir? Does that narrator EQUAL the author?

Well, yes and no.

Readers often ask me how I could write so personally about myself. In person, I am actually fairly reticent and have a developed sense of privacy. The answer is that I think of the self on the page as someone I’ve created. That particular self is fixed. That person will always think a certain way. In memoir, I have chosen which parts of my self to emphasize and dramatize. No doubt my need to do so demonstrates some aspect of my own thwarted development, but there it is. I’ve created a self on the page.

Think of it this way: the first-person narrator is a distinct other entity, what's often called your narrative persona. The narrative persona represents you as a diplomat represents her country. And that persona can sometimes be more real, more honest than the person who you are in the world.

As novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison writes, “I keep going back to the original story of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own surface image. The best writing, whether it is a novel or a memoir, destroys that image--the comfortable image, the beautiful image on top. It explores the dark water beneath it.”

The dark water underneath makes for authentic narrative, and what we should most concern ourselves with in terms of truth. The writer must be willing to capture what happened in all its awful or real glory, to show the warts and festering sores, to take responsibility, to not dismiss the inconvenient contradictions too hastily (i.e. the despised stepfather actually acted like a human being for once), and so forth. This isn't skill, but a way of being, and relates to really knowing and accepting ourselves (as mentioned above) and being willing for the reader to think poorly of you, to not like you.

The goal of portraying yourself on the page as a well-rounded character isn't to be liked or admired by the reader. The goal is to create the illusion that he knows you and understands you.