Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Good writers can tell a story. Great writers get you invested in the characters in the story and leave you missing them on the last page. You’re cheering for the protagonist, understanding her flaws, and loving her anyway. In memoir or personal narrative, the characters in the story are not only you, but also the people around you. You need to do them justice in your story, just as you want to clearly portray your own ideas and personal plotline.
Here are a few tips on writing about people.
1. Look for the obvious and not so obvious physical attributes. Sure we can describe someone by his or her height, eye color, or weight, but that doesn’t speak to who the person really is. If Joseph is so tall he has to duck to get through doorways, that’s a defining feature. If Mary has a lazy eye that droops after she’s had too much to drink, that’s a destinctive detail.
2. Clothing makes the (wo)man. The devil is in the details. Does this person wear subdued or loud clothing? Are his shoes scuffed up or polished? These details tell a lot about a person and shed insight into their economic status or priority system.
3. What are they saying? Dialogue speaks volumes and is the best way to “show, don’t tell. Incorporating dialect, slang, or other geographic details into speech is another great technique. Someone with Southern roots might be telling you to go, but actually saying “ya’ll need to take a hike.”
See below for a description of my own father, using all three of these tips above.
Outwardly, my dad was a big presence in any room. He had a heart-shaped face, a big smile and a wise-crack to go with it. By the time I came along, the hair on his head was numbered but he combed it with care. He wore oversized and busy sweaters, of which I can only call Cosby-style. He had a reddish complexion, the stereotypical fair Irish skin that was quick to flush or burn, depending on exposure to the sun or the timing of his last Scotch. He also had those smiling Irish eyes, complete with a twinkle in them that gave fair warning when he was about to say something off-color.
"Someone needs to find him a toothbrush," my dad once told me about his hospice nurse.
I would give anything to hear his trademark Bob Walsh snarky commentary again. He died November 11, 2016 and I miss him so much some days it hurts like a punch—and then twist—to the gut. Did my description of him make that evident? Did I paint a good picture?
That’s our job as memoir writers—to honor the stories we’ve lived through and the people who have been along for the ride. I hope this inspires you to not only write a life story, but also to include those people who have made that story all the more interesting.
Nora Kerr is the owner of Memoir for Me, specializing in memory and story books filled with the life stories that matter.