The Protagonist of a Memoir Must have a Goal and Obstacles

by Jerry Waxler

A fundamental element in every story is the reader’s identification with the protagonist. This protagonist doesn’t just stand there. He or she wants something and then moves toward it, while readers turn pages, eager to overcome the obstacles. In Andre Agassi’s “Open” the pressure to push against obstacles generates enormous tension that makes the story move like a novel.

Identify the Protagonist’s “True Goal”

Andre Agassi obviously wanted to succeed at tennis. Or at least that was what his father wanted him to do. Even while Agassi was winning matches, inside himself, he felt lost. Over the course of the book, he discovered another set of goals. These were not the ones his father had imposed on him – fame and wealth through tennis – but the ones that came from his own heart. Until he discovered his passion for helping kids, his path was murky. In fact, this is one reason why the book felt so profoundly satisfying. His search was not simply to achieve his goal. First he had to find it.

Writing Prompt
To find the essence of your own story, identify the desires that drove you. This can be even more intriguing when you explore the way your goals changed over the years. List or describe the things you wanted when you were twenty. Make another list for what you wanted ten or twenty years later. Compare the lists. What changed? Write a paragraph or a page describing the evolution of your desires.

This celebrity’s inner obstacles were just as interesting as his outer ones

As a tennis player, each serve and volley was crucial. Agassi compared tennis to boxing, but much lonelier since tennis players never even touch each other. The image was apt as I could imagine him grunting, sweating, and struggling to fight off the blows from his opponent and land some of his own. Agassi describes many critical wins and losses, providing fascinating external drama.

But the heart of his story took place inside him. Even as he was becoming famous, he continued to feel confused and rebellious, creating a reputation as a bad boy. Hired to act in a television commercial, the director told him to say “Image is Everything.” Even though the motto was intended to sell cameras, his critics and fans jumped on the phrase, twisting the words that came out of his own mouth into a confession that he was in fact shallow and self-involved. Now, he had to fend off insinuations that he had no inner life. The media and fans made him their own creature, someone they could shape, since he obviously was having trouble shaping himself.

This pressure between his inner struggle to define himself and the outer pressure of the media to define him creates one of the most insightful portrayals of the celebrity culture I have ever seen. It is also evidence that a passionate memoir writer can delve into the facts of life and go deeper and deeper until he discovers authentic, unique, interesting dramatic tension.

Writing Prompt
Your own obstacles will be an important component of your story. Some of the outer ones will be easy to spot. You didn’t have enough money, or you lost a parent. Write one or more scenes, portraying how you overcome external obstacles.

In addition, to describing the things outside yourself, look within and describe inner problems. Perhaps you violated your own principles, or tried to please the wrong people, or perhaps there were things you only realized you wanted after the failure of your first round of desires. Write a scene that shows a moral or psychological dilemma. What emotions or beliefs got in your way? Continue to the next development. How did you overcome the obstacle?

This is part 2 of an article about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”  In Part 1, I pointed out that a memoir can be great even if it’s by a celebrity. In the next part of my search for the techniques that make the memoir work, I will look at the emotional flaws in the character, and conflicts with other characters.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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  1. Pingback: Did I finally find the thread? « A Los Alamos Girlhood

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