Journal Writing for Memoir: The Character Journal

by Amber Lea Starfire on November 12, 2011

catnav-journaling-activePost #50
Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire


If you’re like most life-writers, you struggle with how to portray real characters on the pages of your memoir. Maybe you received feedback that your readers are having difficulty “seeing” the people on your pages. After all, how do you make Great Aunt Jane, with all her mannerisms and peculiarities come to life on the page? What about your brother? You’re having trouble picturing him as an eight-year-old, in part because he’s ten years younger than you. Or—most difficult of all—how do you portray yourself on the page in a way that seems real and honest and credible?

If you’re not one of those lucky writers who has a knack for remembering faces, vocal speech patterns, expressions, gestures, and idiosyncracies (I hear those writers exist, though I’ve never met one personally), you’ll need some help fleshing out the different traits of your remembered characters, and choosing which traits to include in your story. It’s helpful to think about the ways in which characters are directly presented in writing: appearance, speech, action, and thought.

Using your journal to explore the different facets of characters allows you to write without commitment, to remember without blame, and to draw out the traits that will bring them to life on the page. The following journal writing exercises will help you create more rounded portraits of the people in your memoir.

  • Make a list of traits related to the person’s appearance: hair, facial features, height and weight, posture, mannerisms, ways of walking and sitting, habits, such as biting fingernails, fidgeting, pacing, etc. How does the person’s temperament affect his appearance? (For example, if he tends to be anxious, he might habitually furrow his brow.)
  • Write a monologue by your character. Think about a topic your character cares about. Now, pretend you are that person and talk about your passion. Try to inhabit the voice of that character as much as possible while you write. (If your character is still alive, ask if it’s okay to record a conversation with her sometime, or just listen carefully next time you speak with her.)
  • Make a list of actions your character took or is likely to take. What did your character actually do during the scene you’re writing about? Did he fall silent? Leave the room? Take his anger out on someone? These actions tell readers about your character’s … well, character. Note: If you can’t precisely remember the person’s actions, use your knowledge of the person to write down likely actions.
  • Optional: Make a list of things your character likes, dislikes, loves, hates, fears, and desires. If you’re writing memoir, you won’t normally convey the thoughts of your characters (usually, when writing in first person, we only “see” inside the narrator’s mind). And, obviously, you can only make this list if you know these things through the person’s words or writing. You may have access to letters, journals, and other source materials that can be useful to fully understand your character.

Note: If the person you’re portraying is still alive, spend some time with him or her. Then rush home and add to your character journal using the exercises above. Use pictures or videos, if you have them. Interview other people to gain their perspectives and memories of your character’s appearance and speech. And don’t forget to create a character journal entry about yourself as the narrator (you, at age 15, for example)!

After you’ve completed the exercises, ask yourself which five or six traits (from the lists) will help you tell your story. Then, incorporate those traits in a scene. Include something from each of the first three categories—appearance, speech, and actions. Focus especially on those traits that reveal something about the character’s thoughts and feelings.

We welcome your  thoughts and  suggestions on this topic. Please leave a comment below.


Related Articles:

Journal Writing for Memoir: Mining Emotional Extremes
Journal Writing for Memoir: Mining for Metaphor

A Week’s Worth of Journaling Prompts: Using Your Journal for Memoir
How Journaling Can Help You Write Memoir

Why Write? Journaling for Memoir


For creative ways to use your journal, as well as writing tips and prompts, be sure to connect with me on Writing Through Life.

reflective journaling


Image Credit: Charis Tsevis

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Journaling for Memoir: The Character Journal — Memoir Writing Blog | Journal For You! |
November 13, 2011 at

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda November 12, 2011 at

Excellent advice. Very practical and helpful.


Grace Peterson November 12, 2011 at

These are great tips. The showing [vs. telling] will be a lot easier if we’ve got a clear picture in our head.

Matilda Butler November 12, 2011 at

Amber: Thanks for focusing on character descriptions and journaling. This is a great way to develop the habit of describing ourselves and others — physical descriptions, behaviors and traits, speech, etc.


Amber Lea Starfire November 12, 2011 at

Thank you Linda, Grace, and Matilda. In addition to using a character journal for specific writing projects, it’s also great to get into the habit of describing people in our “regular” journal. Try listing traits of your partner, a child, or other relative. Usually, when we journal, we don’t think about these things. But later, when we’re using our journals as resource materials, this kind of attention to detail comes in handy. :-)

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