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.

Memoir writing lessons from the heart

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Perry Foster was an ordinary business man until he found himself on the wrong end of a cardiology exam. Now he bears a scar on his torso that looks like it was zipped shut, which makes him a member of the zipper club. When he chose to record his experience he was not drawing upon years of training as a writer. He simply wanted to tell his story and his memoir “Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life” is the result. Whenever I read a memoir, I look for lessons. How did the author put it together? How did his words create the emotions as I was reading? I have found that new authors, in their passion to explain what happened, often provide lessons every bit as good as the ones I learn from the pros.

Memoir like a novel
One of the most basic lessons in this book is Foster’s knack of telling a story like a novel – that is, he lets me see events for myself. His descriptions are so quintessentially “show don’t tell” that reading the book is like attending a “show don’t tell” seminar. Take for example a stressful scene in a doctor’s office when Foster’s wife pulls out a bottle and takes two aspirin, showing the headache rather than telling it. And precisely because the example is so basic, its lesson is easy to learn. If he had written, “she had a headache,” he would be reporting a fact that was inside her head, not his. A slightly improvement would be dialog. If she had said “I have a headache” at least he would not be reading her mind. But now she becomes the one who is telling. When he shows her taking the two aspirin, readers can see the evidence for themselves.

Foster also does a good job staying within a time frame. He immerses himself within each scene, providing sensations that let me lose myself in his world. Since the book starts around the time he learns his heart is failing, I know little about his history until he is sedated for a surgical procedure. In his drug altered state, he describes a picture perfect flashback from his childhood. This ploy supplies background about his family, and the flashback also provides pacing, letting me linger there with him while surgeons are poking at his body.

His observations include his own thoughts, feelings, and body reactions. These internally directed observations take me inside his experience. “Does anyone ever wake during surgery?” he asks his surgeon. He notices the taste of perspiration dripping from his upper lip. After this frightening meeting he becomes furious with his wife for trying to relax while she was waiting. “You’re buying a romance novel,” he asked in a restrained voice. “How could she?” he thinks.

Edgy characters make me turn pages
From the beginning Perry Foster showed me his messy emotions. He was afraid for his heart, angry at the doctors, and edgy with his wife. His thoughts are often judgmental, and paranoid, and I think, “No wonder this guy’s heart is a wreck.”

I also wonder how he could be so honest about these feelings. This is a big issue for me, because my instinct is to hide my imperfections. “Hands Upon my Heart” shows me that disclosing authentic feelings, even if edgy and flawed, creates human warmth so palpable I want to pick up the phone and ask him about his health.

Perry Foster’s nervous tension serves another purpose. It increases dramatic tension. Consider Shakespeare’s characters Hamlet, and Ophelia, or Romeo, and Juliet. Their edginess creates suspense because you’re never sure what they’ll do next. Foster achieves the same effect. I kept turning the pages to see how he will juggle the pressure of his disturbing emotions.

Will he grow?
I love character development in a book. By the time I reach the end I’m hoping some lesson has been learned. Because this is such a satisfying payoff for me, as soon as I recognize the character flaw I start anticipating how the person will grow. It’s part of the suspense that keeps me reading. I found this suspense especially acute in “Hands Upon my Heart,” where Foster seemed like such a likable guy, I couldn’t wait for him to find inner strength and peace.

In the end the author does become more accepting of his situation and his wife, but his changes did not match what I expected, resulting in a feeling of being let down. What can I learn from that? It feels like a variation on the famous advice offered by Anton Chekhov. If you show a gun in the first scene of a play, you should fire it by the end. It looks like this advice could also be applied to character development. When the beginning of the book shows dramatic tension in the character, then by the end that tension should be relieved.

My expectation that Foster was supposed to grow during the course of the book raises a fascinating question. Should a memoir take me on a perfectly crafted ride, or must it follow the course of events, precisely? My view is that from the same raw material, a storyteller could craft a thousand different stories. The memoir I end up actually reading is not the person’s life, but rather a creative representation of it. And it turns out that telling the best possible story provides a benefit to the writer as well as the reader. The more you strive to tell a good story, the more you learn about your life. Perry Foster’s “Hands Upon my Heart” has stimulated and informed my thinking about these issues, and as I look for the story within my own life, Foster’s work will be one of the sources for my deeper understanding.

See my other essay about Perry Foster’s memoir by clicking here.

See also: Dee Dee Phelps was another adult learner who developed her writing skill not as a professional writer but through workshops. Read her insights in the interviews we reported here.

See also: Chekhov’s Gun, a wikipedia entry

For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.