The Characters in Your Memoir

Your memoir is a personal story about a time in your life, written from your Point of View (POV). But unless you live in a bubble floating in space, the story has a context of time, place, and the others who were there.

I’ve written previously about how memoir is the nonfiction genre that is most like fiction. It uses many of the devices that a fiction writer uses—creating a sense of place, providing details about characters, using dialogue and flashbacks, and using a story arc for the structure.

But let’s for a moment consider the “characters.” These are not fictional inventions. These are real people in your life. Real people who will likely read your memoir. So, is it truth or dare time?

Some memoir writers wait until after their parents die to write about a difficult childhood, for instance. Others do not. This is not to say they always lay it all out there. If revenge is your only motive for writing a book, it’s not a pretty one, and the book may suffer for it. Other writers tone down the details or leave them out altogether, fearing they may hurt someone they have now made peace with.

If you leave out all the awful details, your story loses something. For instance, if you are writing about a scarring event, but you make it sound less than, you’re not giving us the whole story, and we may not be able to appreciate your point. For example, if your father beat you, saying, “He was an angry man and often took that out on us,” is a start. But we’re left wondering whether that means broken arms or harsh words. These details give us a reason to understand your point of view and the trauma this caused. If you sugarcoat it to save other’s feelings, will we know your hurt and anger?

This conundrum came up recently in a Clubhouse room about memoir writing. Specifically, whether it was false to change details, the time or place so that readers cannot identify the person you are writing about.

One writer, for example, changed an interaction with her aunt into one with a “family friend.” She and her aunt now have a good relationship, and she says the point she wanted to make didn’t need a blood relative. Some people think this is false or fake. But it depends on the incident and how it relates to your story. For instance, if your father called you a whore when you were 16 and dressed to hit the clubs, the anecdote loses power if you attribute that critical comment to the cab driver.

Some memoir writers in the Clubhouse room said they had given their book to family members to read before publication to see if they were comfortable with it. This is an option, but it is risky. What if papa doesn’t like how he is represented? Do you change the story? Do you publish and risk upsetting him?

What do you think? I’d be interested to know if you’ve encountered this challenge in your writing.

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