Writing characters as evil

Avoid writing one-dimensional characters. That is an important piece of advice for writers. No one is all good—or all bad. One-dimensional characters are unrealistic and shallow. You want complex characters to make the story interesting. For memoir writers, don’t write yourself or others as perfect and therefore unrelatable, predictable, boring. At the other end of the spectrum, painting someone who wronged you as all bad can backfire—revenge writing can make you look bad yourself. Complaining relentlessly about some completely terrible person makes for tedious reading, and we know there are two sides, two perspectives to every story. We don’t want caricatures, we want to read about real people who have been affected by their past experiences, who have learned thought and behavior patterns, who are complicit in relationships. What is the whole story?

During this turbulent and stressful year of COVID-19, protests and rioting, divisive leadership, and contentious elections, many of us have discovered some shockingly unpleasant truths about our friends and acquaintances. This year has brought out the worst in people. How can they believe that?! How can they think like that?! How rude, how disgusting! We had no idea that some of our friends were such awful people. But are they? We thought most of them were just fine before, or we would not be friends with them in the first place.

While we are an extremely divided people these days, we have to remember that the characters of our friends, our family members—and most everyone, including ourselves—are neither all good nor all bad. I hope we can still see the goodness that resides even in people we strongly disagree with, even if we have discovered they have “evil” within. I hope we don’t put friends or family members into their own little boxes and check them off. If we do not see the humanity in each other, we will surely destroy our country. No amount of flag waving will save us.

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Honoring others by helping write their life stories

Last week I learned the Battlefield Doc had passed away. I had been unable to reach him at the Veteran’s Home and my fear had come true. Fortunately, his longtime friend and Power of Attorney was able to be with Doc during his last breaths as he faded gently away from being worn out after 90 years, and being locked into the care home with no visitors allowed had been difficult and lonely for him.

Doc and I worked together for three years turning his notes into a readable memoir, capturing combat and stealth missions and frontline lifesaving experiences from this old “forgotten war.” Even though he was just a few years older than my dad, Doc became my adopted grandfather. Working on that memoir and going on book signings was the highlight of his last years. He felt proud that people—strangers even—wanted to read his stories and then were amazed by them, and he loved reading his Amazon reviews.

Doc got no honors, no medals for his bravery under fire and lifesaving skills thanks to the gruff sergeant at his exit interview who stated “medics don’t deserve any medals, you were doing your job.” Doc himself denied any heroics and had previously kept his military experiences hidden, but he was pleased to finally have his combat service recognized and honored by other than a letter from the president of South Korea. I was the one upset he had not been given any kind of award or medal. Even his records had been destroyed in a big fire at the local military records center.

Working with someone else to help them write their stories is a beautiful way to honor their life. Someone cares enough to ask them questions, someone wants to hear their stories and thinks they are important—important enough that they want to help write them down to save. While they may distrust that the experiences of “common people” are important, you are saving lived history and culture in a way that textbooks cannot do. Not only is that valuable history, it is a gift to the family so they will always know their ancestors and will know their roots and the experiences that helped form them and in turn helped form the next generation.

Taking the time to ask about an older person’s early life—priceless! For both of you.

Rest in well-deserved peace for a life lived well, Doc. We have your stories.

Posted in capturing memories, death, ghostwriting, grandparents, heritage, history, honoring veterans, storytelling | 1 Comment

Memoir Writing – What is the meaning of your stories?

After online church this morning, I was thinking bigger about Jesus as storyteller, as he was the master of parables. Pastor Katie said, “If we look for one clear meaning, we limit the story of ourselves, of God’s kingdom, and possibilities.” In the parables, “a seed is not just a seed.”

What is the meaning of YOUR stories? When we write memoir, we are told to find the message we are trying to get across and stick with that focus, avoiding distracting details and side stories. At my first Zoom presentation the other day on life writing for seniors, I mentioned finding this focus. It may be broad, such as what your childhood was like during that time in history and society. It may be more focused, as how you overcame a certain major difficulty or adventure—the “hero’s journey,” as writers call it. I also told the attendees to just start writing and then see what comes of it, figure out how to organize the stories later—less daunting that way, too.

Memoirs do need to focus and have that raison d’etre, the reason to be. You are leaving a record of your life and personality, but are you also intending to educate about lived history (vs the impersonal broad brushstrokes of textbook nonfiction), to inspire others to persevere through whatever their own difficulties are, to build understanding and empathy for others whose shoes they don’t wear, or to entertain with your funny anecdotes or exciting travel memories—the biggest reasons to write your life. Often more than one, or even all, these reasons can be in one memoir.

Back to the Sunday sermon. You may have an overall message in your mind of what you want readers to get out of your stories, but there is more than one way to “get it.” A seed is not just a seed. A rule of writing, especially for children’s books, is to NEVER TELL THE READER WHAT TO THINK. Tell the story of what happened, but allow space for readers to feel their own reactions and discover their own meanings—not yours. They will enjoy your story more when they can use their own brains as they travel your life with you and make their own discoveries.

Once upon a time, she sowed sunflower seeds…

Storytelling: There is more than one way to “get it”

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