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Memoir writing - 5 characters you need in your cast

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

​Even though you may be the 'main character' in a memoir, this book is not just about you. Even non-fiction needs other characters. And many of them. You can’t stand alone in a book so you are going to need a broader cast of characters to fill the pages, and to fill the world you are building on paper. Giving yourself friends, family and a past is what makes your story come alive. Who else should have some airtime in your book? How will you write them in? Here are 5 archetypes all memoirs need to build a plot that works hard to carry your story.

These are some of the people you may want to include in your story. But make sure they fill a role and drive your story forward. Don't bring someone in randomly. Some will pop in and leave, others will stay the course of the book. Be careful to ensure that you don't cast an entire book of 'walk-ons' who don't reappear. If they come into your story, most often we want them to stay the course and travel the journey. See which archetype they are going to fulfil and cast them carefully. A MENTOR A book structure is well served by having a 'wise elder' who you turn to at key points for advice. This can be an older person, boss, teacher, therapist, guru, priest or something fun like a psychic. This is the voice of wisdom, which often you may disregard as the hero in the story. A CONFIDANT This is often a best friend. sibling or grandparent. A confidant is someone who provides a lot of dialogue opportunities. It means you (as lead POV character) can 'talk out' your issues with a friend who listens. An ANTAGONIST This is a critical character. Who is working against you in the story? An ex? A friend? A boss? A client? THE HERALD This is the person who delivers you some news or information. Books are filled with information that changes the course of the story. This can be a doctor, ex, a neighbour, police, or a friend. It can also be a news channel, a tweet, a text or any modern method of getting information. A JOKER This character provides some light relief and changes the mood at times. It is often a friend, a child, teen or annoying colleague. All books need a fun element that makes you, or the reader, laugh. This is often called the Sidekick in movies. These characters all play a key role in the PLOT. But of course there is simply a world that you have to make come alive and that is full of others. Ø Who are they? Ø Where do they fit in? Ø Do you talk to them in the book? Ø How do they weave into your story? Ø Should they have some scenes without you in them? Ø Will they be able to tell their own story in their own voice? Ø Might you tell their story in a text box? (For example, a client’s story) Ø May they talk about you? Ø Will they challenge or support you? If you are writing a memoir it is a great idea to make a page that represents each decade of your story. List the people who were important in your life in that decade.

  1. Start with the obvious and expand it.

  2. Add names, details, and dates.

  3. Who is a small character you can leave out and which small characters are important?

  4. Which small characters can you add for colour and detail?

  5. Who can you leave out because they don’t really move your story forward?

  6. Do you have an eccentric person who can add colour? Tips on writing about others Ø Work on developing a cast of eight key other people in your book Ø Make sure one of them is consistent, a person who is there for the entire journey with you. They don’t need to be at your side, but need to simply be there. Lance Armstrong uses his mother. Who is your ‘constant’? Ø Keep your cast small. If you have a family of ten, focus on two of them. If you have hundreds of clients, rather share just a few of the most relevant stories. Ø Describe them clearly and carefully the very first time we meet each of them. Ø Make them come alive as real characters. Ø Only chose big impact people to name and develop fully. Ø Let them talk – to you and to each other. Ø Roll them naturally into your story. Ø If you are not going to develop them don’t name them, and don’t describe them. Rather give them generic titles like “the neighbour’, ‘a client’, and ‘the doctor’. WRITING TASK Make a long list today of the people you have forgotten to include in your book. How you are now going in include them? Write a scene today in which one of them is talking to you (or talking about you).

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