Reading error teaches a writing lesson – or – A good character is hard to define

By Jerry Waxler

Part of relating to a good story is to feel a personal connection with its characters. Now I need to develop the knack of portraying the people in my life onto the pages in my memoir. I have attended workshops, and read how-to books about this skill, but it has been eluding me until recently when I stumbled upon a valuable insight. By incorrectly reading a series of short stories, I had an aha-moment about how reader and writer work together to form characters. This discovery will help me bring my characters to life.

I first noticed my reading problem last year when I read a lovely collection of short stories, “Apologies Forthcoming” by Xujun Eberlein about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. [ To read that essay, click here.] In one story, a student was relocated to join peasants in the countryside. In another story, a young factory worker struggled to make friends. I imagined the second story was about the same person as the first. My interpretation was wrong. The link was created by my imagination, not the author’s.

Recently, I read another book of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj. [To read that essay, click here.] I am attracted to short stories, both as a reader and a writer. So I jumped into the collection, enjoying each story individually. But again I noticed my mind making incorrect or unsubstantiated assumptions, unconsciously bridging a character from one part of a book to another. The fact that I repeated my mistake made me curious to learn more about this mental habit.

In many collections of stories, this effect is used intentionally. Readers expect the detective Adam Dalgleish in P.D. James’ mysteries to maintain his quirky personality from one novel to another. His ability to completely override compassion in the service of his job became his trademark, and so the reader of these novels forms an expectation that he will continue to behave in this way. As a result of this agreed continuity, the author of a series can portray deeper characters over a longer period of time than they could in just one story.

All kinds of series are built on exactly this principle. Star Trek allows us to get to know their recurring characters across a range of stories. Sitcoms, comic books, and book series take advantage of the reader’s accumulating familiarity with characters.

By digging deeper into the way my mind insisted on linking characters together across pages, I now see more about the way authors create characters. Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages. In any longer book, this effect of continuity is a crucial tool for authors, but I never noticed it quite so clearly as when I saw it happen accidentally across multiple stories.

Now that I see the bridging, I can use it to help me offer my reader a better, more satisfying connection with the supporting characters in my memoir. Take my older brother, for example. He’s an important enough person in my life that I would want my reader to know more about him. So how do I bring him to life?

Ed towered over me in my youth, at first because he was seven years older than me and later because he was really tall. Six feet five inches and too thin he should have easily made it onto the basketball team. But like me and my dad, he was not particularly athletic, and he walked with a slight tilt because of his scoliosis. When he was cut from the team, he responded with an intensity of disappointment I wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps he had hoped a team sport would help further his ambition to be a doctor, or maybe he really wanted to play basketball. I was too young to ask, and now it’s too late.

Armed with this collection of observations, I begin to look for places in my memoir to expand his character. Hopefully the reader will do what I do when I read, and accumulate an image of Ed as an authentic, multi-faceted person. I hope they will see my relationship to him, and how he affected my life. As I gather information about him, I notice a peculiar thing. By writing about him years later, I am bridging across the years, and revisiting our relationship. I too am feeling this authentic connection grow, as I accumulate wisdom across the span of time.

Writing Prompt

Start a file that contains anecdotes, vignettes, and personal characteristics of important characters. Add to this file over time, through brainstorming, free-writing, explore your photo albums, or conduct interviews. This file will provide source material to help you build authentic characters in your memoir.

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