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Character and Conflict in Memoir and Family History

Biff Barnes

Richard Gilbert, in a recent post on his excellent blog, Narrative,  “Undercurrents in Narrative Essays” explored what engages readers.

“Stories that grip us,” said Gilbert, “ involve some tension—a conflict or question.” When that conflict isn’t present the “narrative lacks any urgency or even movement…Such flat writing flunks the ‘So What?’ test.”

Photo courtesy of tonynetone under Creative Commons

To explain why, Gilbert cites, “Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, ‘The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.’”

The lesson for memoirists and family historians is that dealing with questions like “so what?” or “why?” often requires that they go beyond the factual record. Instead of being completely occupied with accurately reporting what happened next, the writer must examine what motivated people and what emotions they felt while specific events occurred.

To do that do that you must be guided by the advice another of my favorite bloggers, Kendra Bonnett, Women’s Memoirs, offered in a post titled Memoirs Have Character’s, Too. Her point was simple. Memoirs (and family history), if they are to be interesting, must be inhabited by real people.

Ernest Hemingway advised, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

In dealing with the people you’re writing about in a memoir or family history you need to show them growing and changing in response to the conflicts they experience. As Mark Twain put it, “A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.”

Image courtesy of nancysmith under Creative Commons

Engaging readers in a memoir or family history requires creating portraits of people with real motives and real emotions who face real conflicts and resolve them in their own unique ways.

Doing that requires that the author be willing to try to place himself in the shoes of the character and imagine what that person would have thought and felt at that particular moment. It is that speculative element of a memoir or family history that brings the story to life.