“She Was Such a Character!”
Submitted by admin on Tue, 08/21/2012 – 15:57
DEVELOPING YOUR PROTAGONIST IN FAMILY HISTORY AND MEMOIR
When I first saw my aunt Audriene last Wednesday my eyes welled up. She looked so good to me—old yes, in declining health yes—but she reminded me so much of my grandma. It caught me off guard because Grandma Anderson has been gone for more than twenty years. But there she was with snow-white hair and a soft lap that I could have crawled into. A few minutes later, she made me think of Grandma again with her quick wit and razor-sharp memory.
I came away with new insights about my family on a digital recorder. So indulge me for a moment with some highlights (I promise, I’m going somewhere with this). Grandpa grew up in a Danish-American town as the son of a pioneer boy who crossed from the old country on a boat and t hen to Utah in a covered wagon. When asked to describe the collective town culture, Audriene didn’t hesitate, “Easy going.” Of my grandpa she said, “Most men don’t care much for babies but he loved to hold them.” He connected easily with “babies, horses and plants.” Mary, my grandma, was his complement in everything.
When she was a teenage girl before World War I, her father taught her how to drive the Model T after she proved she could start it with the crank. When she met Grandpa she taught him how to drive, and did most of the diving their whole marriage—not just with the car, but in all aspects of their life together. Grandma’s friend once said, “You and Alvin have the best marriage of anyone in town,” but it was a backhanded compliment. “Of course he lets you do whatever you want.” Grandma replied, “Well, there you have it!” I asked my aunt if Grandma could be stubborn, “Oh yes,” and I wondered where this came from since she was also Danish. Audriene corrected me, “Well her father was English.” Oh!
My grandparents would make rich characters in a story and indeed, they were part of the supporting cast in the book I wrote about my folks. Actually, that is the point of this article: I believe everyone is the protagonist in their own epic saga and their stories should be preserved.
All great stories begin with great characters. So to begin a family history or a memoir, think like a novelist about how to discover your characters and then bring them to life on the page. Here are nine quick ABC tips:
- ACTION: Great protagonists take action and they do so in every scene. They do not let circumstances dictate the outcome of a conflict. They fight, take risks, beg, borrow and steal to survive. If that fails, they still don’t give up but drop to their knees and pray.
- BAD GUYS: A protagonist needs an antagonist: a person or group with competing goals. This drives action and emotion in a story. Bad guys make the good guys look good and the worse they are, the better the story. So to quote from the great writing book Save the Cat, “Make the bad guys badder.”
- CONFLICT: Conflict drives story and without it, all you really have is setting and description. Although this might be fine for pure journaling it makes for lousy storytelling. Conflict exists when one character wants one thing, and another wants something else.
- DIALECT: Great writing requires dialogue that sounds like how real people talk, only better. You should remove the “He said” tags and still tell who is speaking because of each character’s unique phrasing and personality. Each generation and each region has its own way of speaking with unique expressions and phrasing. One of the most wonderful treasures in any family history is when language, idioms and dialect are preserved. When possible—when people are still living—I like to record interviews on audio or video because this is the best way to capture the essence of a person’s language. I had hours of my dad on video with his colorful, earthy language. I had heard it my whole life and still couldn’t capture it all from memory. These interviews were invaluable in writing dialogue that felt alive and authentic.
- EYES: “Eyes are the window to the soul.” So use the eyes to hint at personality, mood and intent without having to spell it out. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, the protagonist says, “The car goes where your eyes go.” So to foretell where a person is going, let the eyes foreshadow.
- FLAWS AND STRENGTHS: We are inspired by characters who show heroic strengths yet we relate to those with human flaws. So include both. Indeed, no one believes in a flawless character who makes no mistakes. Any story—including family history—will feel fake without a counterbalance to all that is good and right in the world. Also consider that often, our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses are two sides of the same coin just manifest at different extremes. This makes people both complex and real. If you only write the fairy tale details, e.g., “And they never once had an argument,” your readers will become a skeptic, speculating about the truth between the lines of your tidy version. So for heaven’s sake, give ‘em something to work with.
- GROWTH: We want to read about a character’s arc, about heroes who show folly in the beginning and make human mistakes but grow by the end. So when you introduce a flaw in your leading man or lady, bring it up again throughout the story, showing how your character grapples with it and ultimately triumphs. Of course in family history we can’t just make up the story, but we do choose which strengths and weaknesses get the most attention on the page. I generally focus on the weaknesses that that have the most growth by the end.
- HANDS: I recently had stitches on my right hand and the doctor took great pains to do a perfect job so I would heal without a scar. She explained that our hands one of the most personal, even intimate parts of us. In cadaver labs, a body will lay on the table naked but with the hands covered out of respect. Imagine that. It reminded me how in an essay about my dad I started to cry at my laptop as I described his hands with scratchy palms, a plain gold wedding band, and strong fingers wrapped around my chubby little girl fist. My husband has skillful, artist’s hands. My mother’s are delicate yet knobby with arthritis from a lifetime of busyness. Hands show personality and they also give away intent. Police officers are trained to watch the hands. As a writer so should you.
- IDIOSYNCRASIES: The characters we adore most have little quirks that make them unique and memorable. How did they defy stereotypes of their culture, gender and generation? How were they ahead of their time, or more befitting an era long gone? What were their favorite seasons and what did this reveal about personality? What were the little things their family members missed most, that they might not have noticed until they were gone? Please do us all a favor and include these loveable details.
In writing memoir and family history people often get bogged down in the details of timeline and facts. But consider this: in a generation, most people will not care about all that. They will be hungry to know who the people really were because in seeking their ancestors, they really want to discover themselves.
If all you do is paint a beautiful portrait in words without any other facts or biographical details, you will leave an heirloom as valuable as a Rembrandt.