Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

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How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.

Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .

Let’s Not Put Story Before Character 

This article may be aimed primarily at screenwriters, but it’s great advice for fiction writers as well. “As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives; characters should be created with that same concept in mind.” Etc. (NB for the copyeditors among you: If you’re anything like me, you’ll wish you got your hands on this before it was posted, but read it anyway. Please.)

As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives, characters should be created with that same concept in mind.

Source: Let’s Not Put Story Before Character – ART + marketing

But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.

Direct and Indirect Speech

Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry blog is always great reading for writers, editors, and other word people, but this one might be especially interesting to writers of dialogue. It discusses the difference between direct speech, when you come right out and say something (“What time is it?”), and indirect speech, when you do it indirectly (“Do you know what time it is?”). The expected answer to “Do you know what time it is?” is not “Yes” or “No” — though you can be sure that one of your wiseass friends will occasionally respond with one or the other!

Notes Owen:

Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.

How one character phrases something is often as important as what he or she is saying. How other characters hear and respond to it can show a lot about those characters.

Source: “Politeness and Pragmatics,” illocution | Arrant Pedantry

Bogged Down in Detail

Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”

“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.

I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!

At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.

Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?

At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?

With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.

I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.

Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?

Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.

I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.

The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.

How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

There’s enough good advice in this excerpt that I’m seriously thinking of buying the book. I love revising and find it satisfying, but I often don’t know how to explain what I’m doing, or what needs doing, or how I know what to do. Maybe this will help.

Nonfiction author Dinty Moore shares some tips and tricks on how to look through a draft and make important revisions painlessly.

Source: The Story Cure: How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy


Punctuation seems to me one of the few human inventions without bad side-effects, and I am so fond of all the little dots and curls that I once taught a whole writing course devoted to them.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

I was tempted to post that quote all by its own self because (1) I agree with it, and (2) Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it, but reading Le Guin reminds me continually to pay attention to context, and I’m continually railing at online memes that encourage us to do the opposite.

So, context: The quote comes in “Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago,”  in her most recent nonfiction collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).

Saramago, the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, was not a big fan of punctuation. Writes Le Guin: “So a Saramago page, one dense thicket from top to bottom with only commas to indicate the path, was hard going for me, and I was inclined to resent it.”

After a couple of attempts, I bailed on Joyce’s Ulysses for similar reasons. Saramago had been commended to Le Guin not only by his reputation but by a friend whose opinion she trusted, so she didn’t stop with resentment. If she was going to persevere through this difficult book, Blindness, she had to trust the author, her guide, and “the only way to find out if he deserved such trust was to read his other books. So I did.”

This worked. “I returned to Blindness and began it again from the beginning,” she writes, “by now used to the thicket and confident that wherever Saramago took me, however hard the going, it would be worth it.”

She doesn’t learn to love Saramago’s ways with punctuation: she “learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm.” She also notes that she has little difficulty when she reads his work aloud, “probably because it slows me down.”

All of which reminds me of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s much-quoted (and -misquoted) lines:

You write with ease to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

It doesn’t seem that Saramago wrote with particular ease, and “breeding” in Sheridan’s sense he certainly did not have, but — point taken. At the same time there are editors out there who think any irregularity that slows the reader down is anathema, and readers who want to barrel through one book after another without engaging with any of them or remembering them later.

I like Le Guin’s approach. She’s willing to put out considerable effort if she trusts her guide.

Me too — but I did give up on Ulysses, although I’d liked some of Joyce’s other work. The trouble was that too many other guides were clamoring for my attention.

Y Is for You

Why (Y?) doesn’t “you” begin with U? Why isn’t it spelled “U”? U and I — how symmetrical, how perfect. Twitterspeak finally got it right.

You is the second person. I’m talking to you. You’re the one I’m talking to. You are being talked to by me.

You is the second person. (You are the second person?) The second-person point of view is rare in fiction, unlike the first and third persons (people?), which are all over the place.

I’ve copyedited two novels in second person, both by the same author: Zoran Drvenkar. The first, Sorry, was the first second-person novel I’d ever read and it blew me away. It’s a thriller and as the story coalesced and came clearer I felt pinned to the wall (if you’ve read the book you’ll understand why I shouldn’t have said that) and blinded by headlights at the same time.

Would it have been so riveting in third person or first? I don’t think so.

Drvenkar’s second novel was titled, oddly enough, You. It was good, fascinating, but not as riveting as Sorry, possibly because this time I was wary and less willing to be riveted.

You know, I’d never seriously considered writing in second person before I started this blog post, but now I’m thinking some second-person freewriting exercises might be useful for the novel in progress.

This is Wolfie‘s very first paragraph in second person:

You dash toward the leftmost swing while your friend Hayden dawdles along behind, scoping out the playground action as she walks. Several other swings are free, but the one on the end is yours. By the time Hayden catches up, you have freed your thick nearly black hair from its red scrunchie and are shaking it loose.

Hah. I could get into this.