Memoir Writing Tip: More on Develop Your Characters, An Interview with Martha Engber

by Matilda Butler on May 10, 2011

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #55 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

memoir, memoir writing, autobiography, journaling, memoir and character

Memoir Writers Need to Face Up to Their Characters

We’re pleased to bring you the third part of Martha Engber’s discussion of memoir writing and character development. If you missed the two previous parts, here are the links:

Why Memoirists Need to Fully Employ Character Development, Part 1

Why Memoirists Need to Fully Employ Character Development, Part 2

As memoir writers, we can get tangled up in our life stories. While trying to get all the threads right, we often ignore character. Yet it is from character that we get motivation and plot. In this third part, Martha Engber explores two more problems that memoirists have and then provides a solution for each.

Why Memoirists Need to Fully Employ Character Development, Part 3

Continuing with my list from yesterday, let me describe two other problems I often find when working with memoir writers:

Memoir Problem #3: “But who am I to…”

Memoirists are particularly susceptible to what I call the Lowly Worm Syndrome. That’s when authors feel they don’t have the power to make certain decisions. In specific, memoirists often feel they don’t have the right to convey real people in anything other than a factual way, as in “So-and-so was born in 1974 and lived in Chicago…”

Most times this sense of I don’t have a right to… is due to modesty and fear, in that authors feel they don’t have the credentials to analyze and accurately depict real people, or if they try, those involved in the story — or their family and friends — will get mad. The latter is often a problem for women, in particular, since many of us were reared to please.

Unfortunately, if you minimize the role people play in your journey, or make their presence in your life rosier than reality, you risk draining your story of honesty and impact.


Realize that when your name is on the cover along with the description of memoir, readers automatically know this story is told through your eyes, which means your interpretation of events can be neither right nor wrong. So freed, you can then tell readers your thoughts and feelings.

Memoir Problem 4: “I thought I told you about that person already…”

Imagine you’re on the phone with a young boy and he says, “I got new shoes. See?”

The humor, of course, is that the child doesn’t realize you can’t see what he sees.

That scenario tends to play out between writers and their readers, too. Memoirists have so many memories to contemplate that it’s easy to get lost and forget the reader. We do that whenever we don’t include the information necessary for helping readers understand who characters are and the role they play.


Consider creating a character development questionnaire and filling it out for each character, which will force you to plumb the depths of each character and decide what readers must know to understand why the character acted in a certain way.


If you’re looking for a detailed approach to developing characters, please feel free to consult my book, which at the end of each chapter includes exercises designed to help you grow a character. Once you understand the process, you can use the same method to develop your characters.

Whether you use my book or any number of other resources to learn the intricacies of character development, however, what’s most important is that you understand that character development is the foundation of a truly memorable memoir that transports readers into your world with a thoroughness that can only be earned when every character in your story is brought to life.

With that, I’ll leave you with this excerpt from my book:

Character Bill of Rights

Now that we understand the types of characters and how they can help us tell our stories, it’s time to make a commitment to every character we create. Namely, we’ll create all characters, no matter how central or peripheral, with equal enthusiasm and without taint of cliché. Furthermore, although more central characters will take longer to develop — anywhere from days to years — lesser characters can and should be guaranteed believability and purpose. Lastly, nonfiction characters should be as carefully considered and developed as their fictional brethren with the aim of adding to the protagonist’s journey instead of detracting from it.

Happy writing,
Martha Engber


Martha Engber is the author of the literary novel, THE WIND THIEF (a book club pick) and GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP: A THOROUGH PRIMER FOR WRITERS OF FICTION AND NONFICTION. A journalist by profession, she’s interviewed former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, actress Marlo Thomas and other celebrities. A workshop facilitator, lecturer and book editor, she’s had a full-length play produced in Hollywood. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Watchword, Iconoclast, Bookpress, the Berkeley Fiction Review and other literary journals. She maintains Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up, a site for writers. Martha lives with her family in Northern California.

If you’d like to know more about Martha:

Martha Engber’s website

Martha’s Facebook fan page

Martha’s book: Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction

You may also be interested in Martha’s chapter in Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kendra Bonnett May 10, 2011 at

This is a fabulous series, Martha, and an important topic. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with readers here on Women’s Memoirs.

Martha Engber May 10, 2011 at

It was my pleasure! Thanks for inviting me, Kendra and Matilda.

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