You're unbelievable. You're one-dimensional. You're boring.
by Ethan Gilsdorf
In a previous post, I railed against the "me" in memoir -- namely, the idea that your memoir might be too much about you and you might need to jazz up your story with another plot line, or contrast your own life story against some other element that you insert or interweave into your narrative, in order to make it seem, well, not so self-indulgent.
But what about the opposite problem?
What if, in your essay or memoir or personal narrative, that person that is you -- the "I" -- is invisible? Or one-dimensional? Or not believable? Or, let's hope not, boring?
I'm not saying that you, personally, are boring. Or that your writing is boring.
What I'm saying is that in your personal narrative, we don't know you. We don't understand you. You're holding your cards too close to your chest. We don't get to know you as a character. You're not a convincing character. So we don't care about what happens to you in your story.
Remember, in narrative nonfiction, just like in fiction, we want to read stories that move us. What moves us is the plight of characters. These stories must have characters. And in nonfiction, you are often the main character, or one of the main characters, of your story. You are the protagonist.
In other words, the problems of characterization that plague fiction writers plague us nonfiction writers, too.
So how do you make us, the reader, care about you, the character? Just like in fiction, you need to create a real, three-dimensional persona who is a well-rounded, reflective, complex character. You have to have dreams, goals and desires. You must be beset with fears, complications and contradictions. You need to begin your narrative with your "I" in a compelling place. Your "I" also needs to go through an emotional/intellectual journey, or a "character arc."
You have to live and breathe and freak out and pout and pick your scabs and be a douche bag. Just like in real life. The reader needs to see all this, on the page.
We need to know details about you that are relevant to your story. We need to know about your world: your hometown, your favorite superhero, why you hate that evil grandmother so much. Was it her red lipstick? The way she kissed you? Her cigarette and martini breath? Why can you still smell it today?
Oh -- and a physical description of yourself is helpful too, so we can picture you. Are you small and scrappy? Giant and lumbering? Balding? Or bursting with hair (in all the wrong places)?
Above all, we need to know what makes you tick. What are your obsessions, your thought processes, your neuroses? What are the oddball details about your life that are so bizarre, so unbelievable, that you couldn't actually make them up? You know the cliché, stranger than fiction. Give us those details.
If you want more of Ethan's routine on this topic, I'm teaching a class where you can try out some techniques and exercises to help you address these very issues. The seminar is being held right here at Grub Strasse World HQ and it's called "It's All About Me: Making Yourself Into a Great Non-Fiction Character" and it's on Friday, March 15th and we're gonna have fun.
If you can't join us, that's fine, I won't be offended. Here's an exercise to get you started. Think of this as a self-inventory worksheet designed to generate "stuff" (words, ideas, insights, fodder for your next therapy session) that you can later insert into your personal narratives.
I call this exercise "I'm the Kind of Person Who ..."
For example, in my case: I'm the kind of person who:
>runs into a wall and says, "Sorry." Or when other people bump into me, I say "Sorry."
>always wants to see someone smile.
>never finishes things
>has "medieval/Lord of the Rings moments"
>is always exactly 10 minutes late.
>never throws away food, even if it's moldy.
What about you?
Here are some questions which, when answered honestly, can produce stuff -- often surprising, real and possibility mortifying stuff -- that can then be added to your stories. These nuggets can be either added in a passage of exposition:
I have always been obsessed with hobbits. I have always wanted to live in the Shire, grow a little garden, drink ale and smoke pipe weed. And go on the occasional adventure.
Or, you can surreptitiously reveal these "nuggets of self" in a scene, possibly transformed into a line of dialogue:
"One does not simply walk into Mordor," I announce in the bar, whilst watching the Patriots game. "Its Black Gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep, and the Great Eye is ever watchful." Then I realize my mistake. I shouldn't tell women about my obsession with Middle-earth.
"Do you realy want to be a hobbit?" she said.
I had to admit, I did. "Yep."
Got it? Ethan is a freak. Ethan is a weirdo. But Ethan is real -- or more real -- as a character. (When he's not astral projecting into a fantasy world.)
OK, now you try! Take a few minutes and jot down some responses to these questions:
- What are some expressions I find myself saying (out loud)?
- What do I find myself saying to myself (aka, the voices in my head)?
- What do I do in public or how do I behave in public that contradicts something I do or how I behave in private?
- What things am I passionate about, what makes me crazy happy, what am I certifiably obsessed about?
- What pisses me off and makes me crazy?
Do this, and you will see yourself as a character "pop" from the page. Soon, you will feel as real as Holden Caulfield, Anna Karenina or Frodo Baggins. You will be believable. You'll be three-dimensional. And you won't be boring.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf