Character arc, the development of the main character in your memoir

Star Wars is a high energy action movie, including an evil genius, exploding galaxies, and lots of shooting. But it also has a subtler dimension. While all the action is going on, there are changes taking place inside the main character. By the end of the movie Luke Skywalker has evolved from a nice kid to a much wiser adult. The protagonist’s development is a key feature in story telling. Once you start looking for his so-called Character Arc, you discover it in many stories. By the end, the character becomes wiser, gentler, more loving. We will turn page after page seeking to understand how the character responds to events, not only through external action, but internally through character development.

Once you understand how important character development is for telling stories, you can set about looking for such an evolution in your own life. But when you ask “How have I changed?” the answer may not jump out immediately. Your own character’s development lies hidden within the myriad events of decades. And few of us bother looking for the way we've grown, until we try to write our memoir.

Look at yourself across a span of time, and notice the subtle differences. How do you treat your grandkids as compared with your kids? What changes do you notice in your ability to explore your own feelings or to think creatively? Consider emotional storms in earlier relationships that no longer plague you.

You may uncover a number of fascinating lines along which you have grown. To craft your story, simplify your Character Arc so it fits into a sentence or two. Derive universal observations that other people can easily relate to, for example, how wisdom replaced innocence, or confidence replaced shyness. This focused idea will help you write your story and will motivate the reader to read it to the last page.

What if you feel that your character has diminished over the years, and you want to whine about the cruelty of life or your father, or regrets about lost opportunities? That’s okay during the research stage. As you look for the best way to present these feelings, they mus pass through the powerful healing influence of storytelling. Trying to tell something interesting makes you realize that anger and complaints are inherently isolating, and separate you from your audience. Storytelling stimulates you to connect with people, and as you try to offer a journey that is meaningful to them, you begin to see your journey in a more meaningful way for yourself.

To help you consider how your own character will develop, consider the variations on stories that are told by other memoirists.
Coming of age as an officer in Vietnam

In My Detachment, Tracy Kidder tried to become an adult by pleasing both his superiors and the men under him. He ended up realizing that trying to please others is a poor basis for internal development.


Coming of age as a politician in Pennyslvania

Children aren’t the only ones who come of age. Margaret George’s "Never use your dim lights," tells of a female politician at a time when all the others were men. It opens her, and our, eyes to the effort it takes to be idealistic in a world of self-involved people. She ended up having had the satisfaction of taking on the world.


Rags to riches, but realizing riches isn’t everything

In “The Other Side of Me,” Sydney Sheldon went from rags to riches, through extraordinary talent and persistence. If the story had stopped there, his development would have been “I made it.” The actual message of the book seems to be something like “with persistence you can do anything.” I don’t know if that’s a very impressive protagonist development, and left me a little flat. During the book he said that he strived so hard to get there but every time he attained a new height he realized there was no “there” But in an afterward on the audio book, he says he has run the race, and it was good. It’s almost as if getting old is in itself a reward. You can put down the sword and relax. Thank God! I don’t know if this was the intended character arc, but I found the afterward gave me more of a sense of closure than the book itself.

Overcoming impossible odds

Many powerful stories show people overcoming adversity. Their strength of character inspires us to keep going through our own setbacks. George Brummell in "Shades of Darkness" overcomes a number of such challenges. He grew up as a poor black man in the segregated south. Then, just as he was pulling himself together in the army, he was blinded by a mine in Vietnam and set back even farther. This is a tale of his survival, and then beyond survival, he achieved successes that were unthinkable when the story first started. From a poor, self-involved boy at the beginning, by the end he has achieved riches of the heart, which he offers to help other people find their own personal development.