As writers, we all know that writing a memoir, a long full length story, pushes us to think on several levels at once—it’s like rubbing your stomach while patting your head, doing a tap dance and a few yoga moves all at once while singing an aria! Whew. And we need to weave images with a felt sense of the moments in time we’re creating, building a world for our readers to inhabit using the techniques of story writing.

One sticking point for memoir writing is characterization—our characters are real people, so we can’t just make things up. We have to use the real locations and settings—we can’t make that up either- they have to be accurate and true. To create a moving story that grabs the reader, we need to create scenes based on real events and real people saying real things—not easy.

There’s a lot to juggle.

Tips for characterization:

  • As you prepare to write a portrait of someone who will be a main character in your memoir, remember to use sensual details, including color, scent, sound, and feel. Use metaphors: He looked like Cary Grant. She moved like Marilyn Monroe—or more modern choices, depending on your audience.
  • Body language How would you describe the person’s body movements? Quick, slow, jerky, bulky, sensuous, lilting, blocky? Did a shoulder rise or a frown appear under stress? Did her face wrinkle up in laughter or confusion?
  • The feel, color, and look of emotion. How did the person’s face and posture change when sad, angry, joyful, hopeful, disappointed?
  • Who are the main characters in your story? Briefly list and describe them in order of importance.
  • Who are the minor characters—people who are significant enough to appear, but who aren’t in the spotlight. Remember, they need to have some significant role in your story to appear in your memoir. If you decide later these characters aren’t needed, you can edit them out. 

 Think about this when writing about characters: what might your life have been like without this person in it? (Consider the premise in the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life).

 Using an old photograph, write a portrait of a grandmother, grandfather, or family member you’ve never met. Try to imagine him or her living and breathing, walking and talking. Write about the story about the setting, before and after the photo was taken, and questions you want to ask them about their lives.


1.      Where is your story located, what part of the world? Even if it’s a small town where you were born, or where your grandmother lived, specific details and colorful descriptions are the secret to writing a memorable memoir.

For example: “We lived on the edge of town in a white clapboard house with a windmill in the back. All day chickens pecked the ground and clucked, and the wind blew the lace curtains in the dining room against the screens. It was hot in the kitchen because the wood cook stove had to be fired up even in summer, and sweat had to be mopped from our brow with an embroidered handkerchief.”

 2.      What is the weather during the different seasons? Be specific. Don’t just say, “Rain.” What kind of rain—horizontal rain, torrential rain, a mild mist, a cold rain, warm rain. Or was it sleet?

Notice your own bodily reactions to the images you capture on the page. Though your reactions are tempered by your own memories, if you are writing IN the scene, if you are gathering the details that make the scene come alive, you will feel it! And so will your reader.


My colleague Matilda Butler, co-founder of Women’s Memoirs and author of a new book Writing Alchemy has analyzed and broken down character types, and will discuss it at our National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar November 16.