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What Makes a Memoir Great? Part 2

This is the second in a series about “What makes a memoir great?” There are many things that can make a memoir great. Or lousy. In this series, I’m trying to outline what I consider to be the HEADLINE characteristics.

In part 1, I proposed to top the list was that a great memoir engages the reader emotionally, and that the primary tool for doing that is story.

The second characteristic of a great memoir, I believe, is great character. Readers want to meet and tangle with intriguing characters. This is not to say that your characters must always be upstanding characters, or even likable. But it is to say that they must be complex and vulnerable. The reader must care about them, care about their dreams, suffer with their struggles. And first among the characters likely to engage (or not) the reader is you, the narrator and protagonist of your memoir.

When you write your memoir, you probably have clearly in mind how you were at the age you’re writing about. But the reader has no such  image. You need to introduce the narrator (yourself) to the reader. As my mother often said to me, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Too often I made a bad first impression, or none at all, but that’s another story.

First impressions matter. So how will you introduce your narrator? What is the vehicle for doing this? Think about the scene that will allow you to bring your narrator forward in technicolor. Use every tool you have available, such as:

– dialogue (direct and indirect). Your character needs to have a voice that is unique to her. Can you hear it in your mind?

– description (fresh, sensusal) – both physical description and  psychological description

– metaphor. (“He was tall” is boring writing. “He was a church steeple.” That’s metaphor, far more engaging.)

– action (show your character in action, not passive)

– internal thoughts and feelings (what does he/she reveal to the world? what is going on inside? are these two the same, or in conflict)

– Desires / Wants. Your character must want something (even if it is not explicitly stated. Do you know what she wants?  Does the reader?)

– Conflict & Obstacles – What / Who is in the way of your character getting what he wants?

What are your favorite tools for introducing character? I’d love to hear your thoughts?