In your life to date, you’ve likely encountered thousands of people. Maybe hundreds of thousands. The kids down the block you pummeled in snowball fights. Your teachers. Co-workers. The guy who used to cut your lawn. The lady who delivered your pizzas in college.
You’ve crossed paths with a lot of people when you think about it, especially if you’ve lived in more than one place.
Do you plan on mentioning every single one of those people in your memoir?
Of course not.
But who you leave out is worth discussing, because many first-time memoirists fill their books with unnecessary people.
I like to call it “character clutter.” Too many characters can be distracting and confusing.
When the narrator of a story takes the time to name a character, or at least provide memorable details about him, your subconscious takes note. Somewhere in your brain, you’re thinking, “I need to pay attention to this person, because he’s going to come into play in this story, sooner or later. If he didn’t, then the author wouldn’t have mentioned him.”
Read this example of a character being introduced in a memoir. It’s from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson:
In the late 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force produced a booklet on isometrics, a form of exercise that enjoyed a short but devoted vogue with my father. The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles. Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn’t need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I expect was what attracted my dad.
What made it unfortunate in my father’s case is that he would do his isometrics on airplanes. At some point in every flight, he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a very heavy piece of machinery, he would begin to push with his back or shoulder against the outer wall of the plane, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths before returning with quiet grunts to the task.
Now, imagine you’ve finished reading that entire book, and the character of the author’s father never shows up again.
That would be weird, wouldn’t it? You might close the book and feel uneasy for a minute before you say, “Hey, wait a minute – what happened to the dad with the isometrics obsession?”
When an author takes the time to introduce a character, the reader expects that character to play some important role. It doesn’t mean the character will appear on every page, but we know we’ll see him again, or we’ll at least see the effects of something he did off the page.
That’s why it’s important to keep your cast of characters “lean.”
Why Go Lean?
Just because you have ten brothers and sisters doesn’t mean you have to bring every single sibling into your memoir. That might be tough on the reader – too many distinct people to keep up with.
However, there’s a good chance that not every one of your siblings plays a major role in the stories you’re telling. In life, people in big families usually develop closer relationships with one or two siblings in particular. If that’s true for you, there’s no reason you have to tell us what every child in the family was doing during every story you tell. Focus on the people who were directly involved in each tale.
Sometimes it makes sense to exclude a person from a story, or even an entire book. You might be tempted to write them in for the sake of accuracy. After all, aren’t you supposed to be telling it as it really happened? Telling the truth?
Yes. But you’re not writing an article for the newspaper — you’re writing a memoir. A memoir calls for good storytelling, even if the stories are true. And good storytelling sometimes calls for leaving things out.
Another way to deal with “character clutter” in a memoir is to combine characters.
Suppose you’re writing a memoir about the years you spent writing copy for large advertising agencies. Imagine that your career spanned at least five decades. That’s a lot of years on the job, and certainly you worked with a lot of different people in that time.
And suppose that early in your memoir, you mention some casual conversations between you and your first office mate – a guy named Harvey.
But then suppose Harvey was only your co-worker for a short time before he moved to New Zealand. A new person took his place – a guy named Ted.
And you and Ted became pals, much like you and Harvey were pals. But let’s say Ted was your office mate for only 18 months before he got shipped off to a facility upstate to “get some rest”.
Six more friendly office mates followed before you eventually earned your own office.
Maybe only one or two of those office mates played a truly significant role in your life – the others, not so much. Are you going to take up space in your memoir naming every single office mate, details of their lives, why they came and went?
That might be a mistake. It could amount to character clutter, distracting the reader from what’s key to your story.
That’s not to say you can’t relate different conversations you had with these minor players. You might tell an anecdote here or there about what happened to them.
Instead of giving significant space in your memoir to so many insignificant characters, you might consider combining those office mates into one or two characters. This is sometimes referred to as creating a “composite” character. Maybe one represents your office mate at your first job, and the other represents the office mate at the second firm you worked for.
We don’t need to know that, technically, you had three different office mates at your first job. What we really need to know is that you had an office mate you could confide in – someone who made your days easier, maybe provided some much-needed comic relief. So provide us with that character.
This technique can work well in party scenes (do we really need to be introduced to every guest at your wedding, or will one rowdy uncle representing most of your mother’s side of the family suffice?), and in simplifying childhood friendships (if Mindy, Lindsay and Coco were your best girlfriends over the years, can they be combined into one girl who worshipped Paul McCartney and collected S&H Green Stamps?).
Please note that the memoir police will not come after you for combining characters. This, like changing names, is commonly done. In most cases, it makes for better, cleaner writing. Don’t fret because in your memoir, you gave yourself two fewer nieces than you really have, when Alice is the only one you really talk to anyway. There’s no law against saying you worked for a personal injury attorney instead of a maritime law practitioner. These are common and valid ways of tweaking reality to either protect someone’s privacy or create a smoother read.
To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone.
Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).