My mother is the primary “other” character in my memoir. I don’t know how much emphasis I should put into describing her. And I wonder if I should put all the description right up front or do I develop her over time? Should I give a physical description? What else should I do? An emotional description? A personality description? –Ally Asking-for-Advice
Dear Ally Asking-for-Advice,
Thank you for your question, which I know many writers, myself included, have struggled with.
Since your mother is a primary character in your memoir, it’s important to give your readers a mental, emotional, and physical “picture” of her, but you do not have to do this upfront. Let your mother’s physicality and personality emerge gradually, over time, both in direct descriptions and in scenes.
Here are some tips:
Tip #1. In a separate document, write down everything you can think of about your mother – how she looks, how she talks, how she acts and even how she thinks. Don’t censure yourself at this point, or worry about how your description relates to your story. Let yourself go wild!
Tip #2. Look at what you’ve written to see if a few outstanding traits or even a complete portrait emerges. Is your mother a funny, sad, or contradictory figure? What aspect of what you’ve written about her is pertinent to your memoir?
Tip #3. Think in terms of “story” or scene for describing specific features. For example:
Physical: If your mother had long hair you can simply state that fact, or convey it through an action: “my mother let out a scream; her long hair must have gotten tangled up in her electric brush roller again.” This says something about your mother beyond her physical appearance.
Emotional: It’s all right to state that your mother was nurturing, mean, or sarcastic, but follow or precede this statement with an example through a scene or a piece of dialog.
Here is how how Jane Austen, describes Mrs. Bennet in Chapter I of Pride and Prejudice:
“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”
Jane Austen states the salient aspects of Mrs. Bennet’s character, however she illustrates these through action and dialog both before and after her description.
And my final tip:
Tip #4. Be patient and let your mother’s character and personality emerge throughout your story, over time.
You’re providing great advice for all writers! I have my own question about first and third person. My memoir is about my mom who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. In Part 1, I’ve told her background (early life) in third person. But once I come into the picture… I’ve started telling the story in first (my point of view). I’m wondering if this change in point of view will confuse people.” — Point-of-View-PA
It’s fine to tell your story from two different points of view, such as first and third person, as long as you signal clearly to the reader when the point of view shifts. From your longer statement to me, I think you are already doing this.
Here are some tips on how to accomplish this:
Tip #1. You can head the chapter(s) about your mother (told in third person) with something like “My Mother’s Early Story,” “My Mother Before I Knew Her,” or simply “My Mother’s Story.” Later, when you switch to first person, signal the change by heading this section “My Story” (because it is, in a sense, your perspective about what is happening with your mother). Or you could write “I Enter into the Picture,” or “My Mother and Me.”
Tip #2. Alternately, you could tell your mother’s story in first person (from her point of view) as well as your own story. Once again, you must signal the shift in point of view to the reader.
Tip #3. Another way to indicate a change in point of view is to use a different font. For example, your mother’s story, whether in first or third person, could be italicized.
By the way, if you have not tried to write about your mother’s early life in first person (and this takes an imaginative leap) this might be a good exericse, even if you end up returning to third person for this section.
There are limitless ways to approach point of view, and no hard rules, as long as you make it clear to the reader who is narrating.
I hope this is helpful!
This column was originally published at womensmemoirs.com.