Journaling for Memoir: Writing About Real Characters 4

When you journal about the people in your life, do you take the time to describe their physical appearance and personality traits? Do you write down the gist of conversations? You might think it’s too time-consuming to record these kinds of details. Or, perhaps you feel you know the people so well, it seems silly to take the time to describe them. But people change. Children grow up. Parents grow old. Physical features morph into something altogether new. Likewise, temperaments may remain essentially the same, but interests and behaviors change. Will you really remember the gist of your argument five years from now?

20121102-131525.jpgIf you intend to use your journal as a resource for a later memoir or for legacy stories for your family, then I encourage you to capture in words the characters in your life. Making the effort now to describe people as you perceive them will help you later — when you are trying to remember how Aunt Ruth styled her hair, or your youngest son looked at age twelve. Try to include yourself in these descriptions, as well. After all, you are the main character in your life story!

If you happen to be a fiction writer, these practices will improve your power of observation and ability to craft characters that feel real to your readers.

Have I convinced you yet? As you consider writing about the characters in your life, here are a list of things to consider:

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 his speech and behaviors? Is he creative, curious, and open-minded? Or is his view of the world a static black and white, right and wrong perspective? Is he an adventurer or a homebody? Does he love to learn or is he content to stick to the tried and true? 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 Ruth’s hairstyle, for example). Include mannerisms and facial expressions that are unique to your character.

Special characteristics of children:
In which stage of growth is the child — infant, toddler, pre-teen, or adolescent? Describing motor skills, speech patterns, immature behaviors, kinds of fears, tendencies to impulsiveness, and physical traits that the child is likely to outgrow (braces, acne, gangliness) is a great way to “capture” the place in the scene or event that the youth inhabits.

Remember that you’re writing in your journal—you don’t need to worry about the quality of your writing, whether it’s “good” or “bad.” You don’t have to worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. You don’t have to worry about the form: poetry, prose, lists, doodles, drawings, pictures, and voice recording are all valid and effective forms for recording an event.

Even if you’re not planning to write memoir or fiction using your relatives as character models, it’s a good idea to include enough description of the people who are involved in your life so, later, 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.


Note to my regular readers: Thank you for your emails asking about my apparent disappearance during the last few weeks. I am happy to report that I did not drop off the face of the earth! So where have I been? And why haven’t I been blogging as regularly as before?

They say that change is the only constant. I’ve found that to be true—and not a bad thing. To me, change is exciting because it brings with it opportunities for learning and personal growth. Change also tends to happen all at once and in more than one area of life.

It makes me think of a line of dominos standing on end. When one domino falls, it hits its neighbor, which knocks down the next and the next and, before you know it, the dominos are all lying down in a neat little trail of tiles. The analogy isn’t perfect, but I trust you know what I mean.

I don’t want to go into all the details here. Suffice it to say that my life is changing—in good ways. And the changes have thrown me off my usual writing and blogging schedule. I’ll be transitioning over the next few weeks, and adjusting my schedule along the way. I’ll continue to blog, at least weekly, and I’ll do my best to keep you informed of future changes.

Thank you for your support and for helping me help you to continue Writing Through Life.

— Amber Lea Starfire

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4 thoughts on “Journaling for Memoir: Writing About Real Characters

  • patsy ann taylor

    These are good suggestions for me. I don’t usually describe family members since the people who may read my journals already know those details. But I have not described people they might not know. Now, I plan to add a few comments on appearance for my future readers. Thank you for the idea. Patsy

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      You’re welcome, Patsy. And still…your family members who may read your journals might not know how you see others. So I encourage you to leave some tantalizing bits of description or dialogue. Perception is sometimes the most fascinating subject of all :-).

  • Barbara Toboni

    Thanks for the reminder, Amber. I remember once while writing about my mother I included the detail that she sat with her arms hugging one of her legs as she talked. It’s something she often did and it brought her so clearly into focus for me.