Characterization in Memoir:Tips on Bringing Real People to Life

Posted by Kathleen Pooler/@kathypooler

“We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.” Isaac Bashevis Singer in The New York Times Magazine.

There are real characters in our lives, as in “He’s a real character” and there are the real characters in our memoirs or novels. The characters in a memoir are real people. The characters in a novel involve people who seem real. They may be crafted with real people in mind. Either way,  they need to be brought to life to our readers in authentic, believable and engaging ways.

A memoir is so much more than capturing a personal history. In order to connect with the reader, the memoir writer has to turn life events into a story that reads like a novel. To accomplish this, memoir writers are required to use the same techniques as fiction writers.

The difference is fiction writers have the liberty to create their characters in any way their imaginations allow within the realm of believability. Memoir writers are obligated to stay true to the real person.

The questions for memoir writers become:

How do I convey my true life experiences in ways that bring my stories and characters to life on the page?

How creative can I be while still staying true to the real people in my life who happen to show up in my memoir?

How can I shine a light on my story and my characters in a way that engages my readers?

Photo Credit: “Step into the Light Carol-Ann” by Abulic Monkeys Uploaded from Flickr, Creative Commons


Since a memoir writer not only tells a story but reflects upon the people and events that lead to growth and change, character development becomes an essential element in the story.

Who am I? Who have I become? Who has influenced me on my journey? How have they influenced me? How do I make my characters interesting and human (multidimensional- not all good and not all bad)?

In memoir writing, I know who these people are but how can I convey the essence of who they are to the reader? How can I bring these real characters to life on the pages? How can I portray myself and my characters in a realistic and believable way?

What will make the reader want to read more about my characters- myself included?

Lisa Koning, a freelance writer answered these questions for me in a series of posts at

Characterisation in Memoirs:

  1. Identify the little details about them that make them stand apart from the crowd by keeping a journal of each character- including the basics of physical traits to where they like to go on vacation.
  2. Since you cannot know what they think, you have to rely on what they say or do- typical mannerisms, dialogue.”

Making Your Memoirs Real:

  1. “Grab your reader’s interest in the first scene. Start with action.
  2.  Appeal to the senses
  3. Focus on the small details  so the reader can recognize something in their own life.
  4. Share your thoughts and feelings
  5. Pull it together leaving the reader feeling like the story is complete.”

C.S. Lakin, Author and Editor notes in this post on “Character Arcs” on her blog Live, Write ,Thrive:

“A character taken on an inner journey should end up seeing new things about self.”

I would add here that often times, it is the people in our lives who help us discover who we are and where we need to go. Bringing them to life for the reader will help the reader experience the story in a more intimate way.

In summary, here are some ways to help bring characters to life on the pages:

  • Research your characters- keep a journal of traits, unique features. Try people-watching. Listen to how people speak, walk, what makes them smile or laugh.
  • Journal– your thoughts, feelings, reflections in response to characters
  • Study photos-try to recapture the essence of a person by their facial expression, their clothes, and their stance.
  • Include the five senses in scenes. Here is an excellent post by Fiction Author Jody Hedlund on “Using the 5 Senses to Make Our Characters Jump Off the Page”. I love the part about awakening our senses by unplugging from the internet. She offers some practical tips on how to maximize the use of sensory details.

I highly recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s new resource book for writers, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character ExpressionIt provides lists of unique descriptions- physical, internal sensations, mental responses as well as tips- for showing  common emotions.

Here’s an excerpt of a scene from my memoir-in-progress, Chapter Two: The Awakening that I changed after using The Emotion Thesaurus to convey “nervousness”:

     The phone rang and when Carol answered it, she lowered the receiver to her leg and asked me if I wanted to speak with Ken. Pursing her lips and shaking her head in disapproval, she handed me the phone.

      Even though I had told Ken I would not be coming back despite his pleas to reconsider, when I returned to the couch, she said,

      “You’ll do it again,” nodding repetitively.

     How could she be so sure? It scared me to think she might be right. I sat motionless before her, feeling naked and vulnerable, like she knew a truth I was yet to find out. Would I do it again-risk my mental health and the safety and welfare of my children just to have a man in my life?

     Rubbing the back of my neck, I cleared my throat. Looking down, I noticed my right leg was bouncing. Leigh and Brian (my children) sat across from me fidgeting and firing questions at me about seeing their friends and being able to go back to school. Luckily it was Friday and I had the weekend to figure it out. Closing my eyes, I took a calming breath.


How about you? How do you bring your characters to life on the page?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave your comments below~


This week: I’m also over at Belinda Nicoll’s  My Rite of Passage blog with  this post: “Change means…listening to your inner voice and deciding not to be a victim”



Next Week: Memoir Author and Poet Madeline Sharples will answer questions about her stunning memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, a shining example of bringing a story and characters to life on the page. Madeline will give away a free copy of her memoir to a commenter selected in a random drawing.







  1. says

    Hi, what a wonderful post, I am currently writing my first book which is part memoir, part information provider on the condition Asperger’s Syndrome which my son has. I will be writing about everything entailed in living with a child with AS from signs and symptoms, diagnosis, difficulties at home and school, joys and delights, funny things he says and does, anecdotes and personal experiences, this post is extremely helpful, thank you.

    • says

      So nice to meet you Adele! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. There’s nothing like sharing the “lived” experience of having a child with Asperger’s Syndrome to bring your journey to life in a way that will inform and guide others. Keep us informed on your progress. So happy you enjoyed the post.

    • says

      Adele, your book when completed will provide a need in the Aspberger’s community. I have an 18-year old grandson with Aspberger’s and ADHD. Resources, such as yours, are hard to find. I wish you well and look forward to reading your book.

  2. says

    Kathleen, this blog post was very helpful and your excerpt really drew me in. I’m left hanging. As far as developing characters in my memoir, it’s been challenging for me and I’m still learning.

    • says

      Nice to meet you ,Andrea! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate your kind feedback. I am in the throes of developing my own characters in my memoir so I totally appreciate the challenges involved. We are all lifelong learners, learning from one another. Best wishes with your writing!

  3. says

    Wow, Kathy, this post makes me want to run right out to nearest cafe with an empty notebook and practice all the tips you offered. How do you ever manage to accumulate so much information? I think you should write not only your memoir, but also a book on how to writer a memoir!

  4. says

    Kathy, as usual your info makes an excellent read for anyone doing a memoir. I agree with this post, however ir sounds more like ” a story based on true facts, or creative nonfiction. Yes all the characters, time and place should be real, but when we give them thoughts even when based on their actions, the memoir is in infected with fiction. However, as I point out in the prologue to my story, the fiction might be the the better truth of the story especially if you have a deep personal understanding of your characters.

    • says

      Hi Jim aka Obie,

      I appreciate your comments as well as your perspective about “memoir being infected with fiction.” It’s such a fine line we walk in recalling the memories to the best of our ability while honoring the essence of the truth. Therein lies our challenge as memoir writers.

      BTW, your website is fantastic and I’d like to direct everyone to it for a fresh perspective on life and writing: I love the section under the Memoir tab- “leave little pieces of gold for your children, grandchildren and great children” so they may know who you were. My husband and I visited his maternal great-grandmother’s gravesite the other day and were left with a deep yearning to know who she was as there are no written records. Linda K Thomas has a similar theme about leaving a legacy to your grandchildren on It all kind of puts memoir writing in a whole new light when we think about the legacy we may leave.

      Thanks for stopping by and stirring up some good old-fashioned conversation!

  5. says

    Thanks, Kathy, for another excellent post, chock full of links to explore! From the few paragraphs of your Chapter 2, I certainly would like to read more, to find out what happens next — that’s a good sign, you know!

    • says

      Thanks Debbie! I am finding character development in writing to be both grueling and exhilarating. So happy you want to read more. You made my day! Thanks so much for your ongoing support :-)

  6. smita jagdale says

    Hi Kathy, I love all the ‘how to do’ knowledge poured in this post. I highly appreciate that. Since I don’t have any special snapshots of the so-called special person in my long life, I may have to get help from an artist. I can never forget those awful, sad moments as long as I don’t succumb to Alzheimer’s. It’s like a video I watch and try to get engaged in doing something else to avoid the pain.
    Knowing you now, I was surprised for a second that Carol had to let you know what she thought about your possible response to Ken. We all have been there–knowingly and unknowingly. Thank God Carol was there–just imagine! There was no Carol in my wretched life.I second Pat–you should write a book on ‘how to write a memoir’.

    • says

      Hi Smita, So glad you enjoyed the post. I find your statement about getting help from an artist to capture the essence of your “so-called special person” since you do not have snapshots to be very intriguing. Thanks for your vote of confidence in me about writing a how-to write a memoir book. I’m just sharing what I’m learning from others and I’m happy you find it helpful. Thanks for your feedback on my excerpt,too. The transformation from the person I was then to where I’m at now is all part of my story. I appreciate your comnents.

    • says

      Oh, Lynne, you are too kind. I’m in the throes of crafting my story. Sending the first 100 pages to developmental editor this week. My goal is to finish my first draft by January 2013 when, I know, the real work of revising and rewriting will start. I certainly want to aim for “fascinating” but as you know so well from your stunning debut novel,Dakota Blue, it takes a lot of work and time. I think it’s worth taking the time to “write it right.” Thanks for your ongoing cheers and support!

  7. says

    Great post! Once a workshop leader led a guided imaging exercise. We were directed to focus on one person in our memoir, close our eyes, and begin to “see” where we’d find that person, what they’d be wearing, how they’d smell, whether they’d smile, what they’d say in greeting (or not), etc. This was all done slowly so we’d have time to call up buried memories. After doing that exercise, I often sat at my keyboard, fingers poised, eyes closed, letting the people in my memoir rise up before me as I wrote.

    The best compliment I received on my memoir was from people who knew my dad. Many commented that they laughed reading about him because I got him just right. They could see him. They could hear him.

    On that point, I used dialogue in my memoir. Some things that were said are as clear in my mind as when they were spoken 50 years before. Other dialogue I created. My guideline was to be true to what the person would have said (including swearing).

    • says

      It’s so nice to see you here, Carol! I’ve been following your progress with your memoir Growing Up Country and see you have some great reviews all pointing to your ability to “not be afraid to get personal in telling your story.” I look forward to reading about your happy childhood. It sounds refreshing! The visualization exercise you mention sounds like a great way to resurrect memories and emotions about a person. I also appreciate your thoughts on being”true to what a person would have said” through dialogue. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing these excellent points.

  8. says

    Kathy, I’m impressed at the wealth of information tucked into this single post! This is a topic I’ve hoped someone would right an easily understood article on, and here you’ve done it. I’ll be tucking this into Evernote to re-read and reference again and again. And I’ll be purchasing my copy of The Emotion Thesaurus straightaway. What would I do without your sharing of your expertise?

    • says

      So glad you enjoyed the post, Sherrey and ,as always, I appreciate your ongoing support. I would add, what would any of us do without each other sharing our expertise? That’s the beauty of sharing our stories and all we are learning with one another. The Emotion Thesaurus is definitely a must-have resource for writers. I commend Angela and Becca on their contribution to our writerly efforts. I’ll post a review soon.

  9. says


    Now you have me thinking again, and wondering what I did to make my kids come across as 3 dimensional, rather than 2-dimensional, which was the case in my earlier drafts. I really think dialogue and personality traits helped me turn my sons into real characters.

    • says

      Sonia, Yes, the dialogue and details of personality and mannerisms as well as sensory details of the environment did bring your sons to life in your memoir. I also think your descriptive reflections added a whole other dimension to the story. I think half the battle as writers is recognizing what we are doing and why it is working. Sometimes we’re too close to the story to see these details. That’s where a professional editor helps as you have shown. Thanks for your comments.

  10. says

    Loved this discussion …. Making my husband and myself into people that friends would recognize and strangers would relate to was the hardest part of the doing my memoir, SAILING DOWN THE MOONBEAM. I wish I’d had your article when I was doing it … might have save myself some time and angst!

    • says

      Amen, Mary! Your statement:”making my husband and I into people that friends would recognize and strangers would relate to” really captures the challenge of bringing ourselves and our characters to life in our memoirs. I appreciate your comments and am happy you found the post helpful I’ve been following your fascinating trek into Nepal on your blog and I’ll be checking out your memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Kevin Lydon says

    Sorry to be jumping in here late, but I am catching up. The practical suggestions you make are very helpful, but every time I visit your site, I feel like I am part of a team all pulling together. I have spent a lot of time alone in front of my computer screen, and it is nice to relate to others who are also working on their stories. Thanks!

    • says

      Kevin, it’s never too late to comment and I’m so glad you did jump in. I don’t think you could have given me a nicer compliment than you feel “like a team pulling together” when you visit. I am so appreciative of that. Thank you. Yes, writing can be very lonely so feel free to jump in again. There’s always room “around my kitchen table” :-)

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