Tag Archives: Jane Austen

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.

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

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