Journaling for Memoir and Fiction: Writing About Real Characters 1

Do you write memoir or use real events and people as models for fiction? If so, using your writing journal to flesh-out your characters can do more than help you create well-rounded characters on the page; it can also enhance your powers of observation and improve your descriptive writing skills.

When writing about people, real or imagined, take the time to think about and describe their traits in your journal. This practice allows you to consider your characters from a variety of perspectives while, at the same time, not subjecting your writing to the harsh critiques of your inner editor. And though you will most likely not include everything you have written about your characters in your piece, the more you are able to articulate their qualities, the more you will be able to create realistic, compelling  characters on the page.

A great way to begin learning how to capture character traits is to observe and write about the real people in your life. Make it a daily habit to observe expressions, mannerisms, physical characteristics, and ways of speaking, and then record what you observe in your writing journal.  Making the effort to capture real people in writing will help you later: if you write memoir, your descriptions will help you recall how Aunt Millie styled her hair, or how your youngest son looked and behaved at age twelve; if you write fiction, you can harvest these realistic descriptions for characters in your stories.

Here are a list of things to consider when writing about people:


Think about the different situations in which you’ve known this person and the situation about which you are writing. How does this person’s personality affect her speech and behaviors? Is she creative, curious, and open-minded? Or is her view of the world a static black and white, right and wrong perspective? Is she an adventurer or a homebody? Does she love to learn or is she content to do thing the tried and true way? High maintenance or easy-going?

Psychological traits:

Beyond basic personality traits, certain psychological traits are important aspects of a person’s behavior. If the person is slightly obsessive-compulsive, for example, her tendency to pick up after everyone (and complain about it) can be humorous, irritate everyone in the family, or both. A person’s tendency to sadness or depression can affect everyone around her. And an adolescent who cuts or has an eating disorder will display some outward expression of self-loathing.

Physical features:

Often, we describe a person using only their physical characteristics. That is why I purposefully placed this lower on the list of considerations. When you describe a person physically, try to keep it simple, yet precise. Hair length and color, face shape, appearance of height and weight, age, etc. And anything particular to the time (Aunt Millie’s hairstyle, for example).


How does your character speak? Does she end every sentence with a question mark? Does he have a deep voice? Speak slowly and thoughtfully, or quickly and clipped? Describe how your character speaks, and also try to capture some real dialogue on the page.

Special things to consider about children:

In which stage of growth is the child — infant, toddler, pre-teen, or adolescent? Describe motor skills, cute speech patterns, immature behaviors, kinds of fears, tendencies to impulsiveness, and physical traits that the child is likely to outgrow (braces, acne, gangliness).

Even if you’re not planning to write memoir or fiction using your friends and relatives as character models, it’s good practice to journal about the people in your life. Be sure to include enough description so that when you look back at that time, you may smile with fondness as you read about how your now-conservative daughter dyed her hair bubble-gum pink and painted her fingernails black just before heading out on her first date.

A version of this article was originally posted 11/6/2010 on


Photo by Ryan Seyeau via Compfight


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One thought on “Journaling for Memoir and Fiction: Writing About Real Characters

  • patsy ann taylor

    Your posts, especially this one, make me realize the time I spend detailing traits of one family member or another is actually helping with my other writing. And when, on rare occasions, I reread an old passage or two, my memory is refreshed and I can see the growth in my writing and the persons I wrote about. Thank you, Patsy