Cathy and I spent last week cleaning some things out of what used to be her parents’ house in Illinois. In the process, we came upon several old family photos. I love looking at old photographs even if I don’t know the people in them. The photos take me into a time period in the past, maybe one I lived through or else one before I was born. I like looking at the people, yes, and how they invite me to imagine what their lives were like, but I also like looking at the artifacts of their time—a calendar hanging on a kitchen wall, perhaps; a fat Christmas tree, shiny with tinsel and icicles; a pack of Old Gold cigarettes lying on a table, a Zippo lighter close by. I can imagine a work-worn hand picking up that lighter and the pad of a thumb flicking open the top. Maybe the thumbnail is split from the misplaced blow of a hammer. Maybe the man’s knuckles are swollen with arthritis. It could be Christmas. The oil refinery would be closed, and the man wouldn’t have to work his usual graveyard shift. The day and night are his to do with what he will.
It takes so little to spark the imagination. Maybe my description brought you to your own memories of people and times now gone. When I think of my father and the difficult relationship we often had, I remember how at Christmas time he’d bring home bags of candies and nuts— peanuts and walnuts and pecans, chocolate drops and ribbon candy. Somewhere beneath my father’s gruffness and anger, there lived a kind and gentle man.
When we write memoir, we must remember to look at all sides of a person’s character, including our own. When we write fiction, we similarly look at our characters from as many different vantage points as we can. It’s a human tendency to want to be able to categorize a person—the evil one, the saintly one, the unintelligent one, the miser, the flirt—but nothing makes a character more uninteresting than writers who make up their minds about their characters too soon. A dynamic character is one who’s capable of surprise. The pressures of the narrative, those created by a character’s actions, end up causing that character to reveal aspects of their personality they may never have been aware they had. A good writer pays close attention to people and the moments when they transcend type and become alive with added dimensions. Give your main characters actions that create problems for them to try to solve. Let them create trouble for themselves and then see what they’ll do to try to get out of that trouble. Look for the pressure points of the plot, those moments when your characters break free from what we’ve come to expect of them. We remember the people who surprise us by acting in a way we never could have expected. Writing is a matter of letting our characters create the moments in which they become something more than they were when our narratives began.