That Character I Ought to Know Best,

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part I

A few years ago little quizzes kept popping up on my Facebook home page.  They all guaranteed self-discovery.

What Jane Austen character are you?  Emma?  Elizabeth?

Which Sondheim musical are you most like?  A Little Night Music?  Company?

For some reason I really had to find out if I was an Elizabeth, as I suspected, and if I was Into the Woods because I certainly couldn’t be Sweeney Todd.  I felt the quiz results might lead to some greater self- knowledge.  If not a deeper understanding (okay, so that’s a little tongue-in-cheek), at least I could step back from myself and look at the whole picture and therefore see myself with more perspective.

For while I have developed comfort with myself over the years, and I understand my own feelings and thoughts, I can’t really see myself as that complete package others do.  And if I don’t see myself that way, I can’t expect readers to see a fully dimensional character as my book’s protagonist either.

The irony is that I also have to develop that deeper understanding of myself to see my reactions in their entirety (both positives and negatives) and to recognize the hidden subtexts of my actions.  Without becoming bogged down in regrets for the past, I have to understand where I contributed to situations, even when the truth makes me look much less than perfect.

For this latter investigation, excavating memories, writing, and re-writing–and all done with an open mind–are the best tools.  When I think I can’t pull out one more memory, that’s just what I have to do and that memory will open up new truths about the past and, therefore, the present.

Tristine Rainer, in her handbook of memoir writing Your Life as Story, devotes a chapter to “Portraying Yourself: You Are Your Hero.”  She urges writers to see themselves as dramatic heroes with flawed personalities.

Ask yourself what your character weaknesses were at the time of a particular event you are writing about.  How did your flaw or flaws affect what transpired?  And writers can’t neglect their heroic traits, so you should identify those as well.

She also recognizes the need for the inside and outside views of the main character:

“In order to get a sense of yourself as the protagonist of a story, you need to see yourself from the outside as others might, as well as from the inside.”

Rainer suggests that writers discover what others want to know about them.  “‘What is it that people always ask you?'”  The answers to that question can lead to some great stories which will engage others.

Knowing that I have to learn more about myself from the outside and from the inside has clarified for me the task at hand.  As I learn more about myself, my scenes are becoming richer–more layered and shaded with meaning.  My character is becoming more likable as she becomes more flawed and takes more responsibility for herself.

It’s all relative.  I’m sure I still have far to go, but my writing improves with practice and research, and that keeps me moving forward.


So . . . what is it that people always ask you?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Research and prep for writing, Writing prompt

10 responses to “That Character I Ought to Know Best,

  1. I loved your idea about how writing can reveal your past events and show the effect in the present. I am also interested to read this book of Rainer now.

  2. People always ask me a few things, such as “Why do you make everything into a joke?” But they ask me practical things, too, like how to fold a sheet, how long to bake cookies, etc., etc., etc. I’ll have to really think about this. Thanks for getting me thinking and for the recommendation of Your Life As Story.

  3. I like the concept of seeing oneself as a hero with flaws. The flaws are what the hero needs to overcome (or make peace with) — in addition to overcoming external conflicts. I also agree that one needs to see oneself as others might. Yourself as character is like a fictional character. You need to be able to show the flaws yet still engage reader interest and sympathy.
    Write on!

  4. Good questions you raise here. Reminds me of a writing exercise I completed just the other night in which I listed details about my friends–basically, how would I characterize them? What stands out about them? What expressions do they say over and over again? What do they always talk about? A few of my friends’ lists looked kind of negative (and these were my own friends!)…then I got to thinking…what would people write about me? Yikes. So it seems we are both trying to see that outsider view! Can be scary, but it’s necessary! You are right; a flawed character is more likable than a perfect one!

    • lucewriter

      Lindsey, that’s sounds like an excellent exercise. It would be good to be so organized that we automatically write up a character sheet like that on everybody we know ;).

  5. Great post and it got me thinking about my life as a writer and how it translates into characters in my novels. I’ll definitely get that book now ‘Your Life As A Story! 🙂

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