When writing memoir, the issue of creating characters is tricky. These are real people, after all, so you have a responsibility to represent your “characters” honestly. Framing my husband or best friends as characters in a book rather than living, breathing people, was weird. And yet, as much as one can try (perhaps successfully) to translate real-life contacts into three dimensional beings on a page, it’s virtually impossible not to cast people in a role.
In MWF Seeking BFF, I’m the excited, sometimes awkward, often neurotic, hopefully friendly one. My husband is the lovable and supportive guy’s guy. Those adjectives most certainly describe us each in real life. But are also times when I’m tired and shy, or when I’m grumpy and standoffish. My husband is, on the very rare occasion, less than the perfect supporter. (Remember when I asked for the Jillian Michaels Wii game for Christmas? You told me it was stupid. Unsupportive! The fact that I’ve still never used it is irrelevant.)
To compress a full life into the pages between covers can be tricky business. Often memoir writers have no choice but to embrace the traits that represent the essence of a person, even if they aren’t the full picture.
One of my literary role models, AJ Jacobs, talks about this building of non-fiction characters in his book My Life As An Experiment (my apologies to those of you who’ve already seen this quote in the comments of this blog, but it was totally relevant to Deb Linda’s post too!):
“Calvin Trillin, in his wonderful tribute to his late wife Alice, said that every writer portrays his or her family somewhere on the spectrum between sitcom and Lifetime movie. Julie and mine is firmly in the sitcom genre. She’s the sensible one, the straight man to my wacky schemes. She makes the realistic decisions, I do what she says.
Our real marriage is like the one portrayed in my books, and yet it isn’t. I overrepresent the conflict, for one thing. It’s not that the conflict doesn’t exist. The fights happen. But I don’t write about the hours of peaceful, contented coexistence.”
Who wants to read about hours of peaceful coexistence anyway?
Bottom line: When turning real-life people into book characters, and real-life relationships into book relationships, you need to represent them honestly and accurately, while simultaneously paring them down to their core.
And then you just hope those real-life people don’t get real-life mad.
Who out there has represented real-life people in their work? Does the fact they exist in real-life make it harder or easier to write them?
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