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I’m thrilled to have Shakirah Dawud, of DeliberateInk, one of the best, most thought-provoking writers around, contribute her thoughts on memoir here. You’ll find your own conception of characters in your memoir deepened by her insights.

– Lynette

The Mystery of Character in Memoirs

Shakirah Dawud

Lynette got me thinking about the workings of a memoir long before I met her at Borders on March’s second Saturday. Her guest post on my own blog cited the use of emotion as key to a memoir’s true power over readers. After meeting her, though, I thought I’d discovered another key.

We tend to think we “remember” someone, when we’re looking back. What we really recall are several aspects of that someone, and only sometimes do they, taken together, accurately describe the person.

I’ve never written a memoir, or even considered it, until I met Lynette on Twitter. My first layer of impression about her was a positive tweet about posts she found on my blog. When I discovered she’s a writer and writing instructor, was recently interviewed by her local newspaper, and has two memoirs on the burner herself, her praise meant much more, glowing beneath this second layer of acquaintance.

When I subsequently met her at Borders, I listened, entertained, as her natural New York accent broadened into her Boston one. Her down-to-earth manner put me at ease. When I learned she has a gift  for relating humorous anecdotes, I left with another, more colorful layer of impressions of her. But there’s more to her than what I saw in an hour’s meeting. And that unknown is part of the thrill of reading memoir.

You have total control over what you choose to reveal about anyone featured in your work. But remember that as real people, these characters have power over what you learn about them. Each is capable of expanding or contracting your understanding of him or her with a single word or action. Pick out those words and actions and play them one against another so we can “know” your characters as you do. Make us wonder—the way you did—about what you still don’t know about them. Speculate for us, but keep us grounded in reality with anecdotes that continue to peel back more layers.

As you write your memoir, remember not to think for us readers, as Lynette has mentioned recently, and not to shoehorn your characters into neat cubbies.

Keeping the edges indistinct, even as you paint your core impressions, brings characters in your memoir to life, allows us to form ideas you haven’t put into our heads, and helps us relate to them in much the same way we would had we met them ourselves.

Unlike fiction, the beauty of reality is that we all ultimately remain mysteries to each other.

Learn about Shakirah’s writing. Follow her on Twitter @ShakirahDawud

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