One of the most challenging aspects of life story writing is bringing characters to life. Taking a real-life person, getting inside them and truly knowing them. One of a life writer’s responsibilities is to reveal the gap between the mask a person wears and their secret self.
But how can a life writer cut through to the essence of a person rather than just writing a flat account of the facts of their life?
Observing details in life story writing
An essential skill of a life writer is observation. Like a painter, the life writer must notice everything about their subject. But unlike an artist, a life writer paints a picture of a person with black and white words rather than a palette of colours. How can a life writer capture the essence of personality?
Questions to bring your life story to life
Writing a life story involves much more than attentive, detailed questioning, although this is an essential skill. Over the years I have learned a few ways of penetrating through to the complexity and intrigue of my subjects. Here are just of few of the questions I ask myself when writing about a person:
- How does the person express their gender?
- How does the person feel about their age?
- How intelligent are they? What is their level of emotional intelligence and degree of common sense?
- What is the greatest frustration in the person’s life? How has this influenced their worldview?
- What are their inhibitions, compulsions, obsessions, prejudices, contradictions?
- Physical characteristics and defects?
- Characteristic facial expressions?
- Characteristic body language?
- Hand gestures?
- Style of clothing?
- The characteristic style of sitting, standing and walking?
- Disposition and temperament? Angry? Cynical? Passive?
- Characteristic sayings?
- The sound of their voice?
- How they end their sentences?
Mindfully listening in interviews
Observing physical characteristics and mindfully listening to the responses of your subject will help you to identify the hidden meaning behind what they say. It will help you paint a portrait of a complex character who captures the imagination of your readers.
Show your reader what a person is like or what is happening. Write characteristics that stand out and are distinctive to a person you are writing about. These include how they look, how they feel when you hug them, what they wear if it is distinctive to them, their aroma and behaviours.
Use concrete words that convey sensory details that appeal to the creative right side of the brain rather than abstract words that appeal more to the analytical left side of the brain.
If the first thing your mother did when she arrived home from work when you were a child was to change into striped pink pyjamas, include that detail. If your mother always drank tea from a white bone china cup, mention it. If your mother always wore Chanel No. 5 perfume, say so.
Creating dialogue in a life story
When writing dialogue, include the characteristic vocabulary and style of speaking of the people you are writing about. If you can’t remember the exact words they said, make them up, so the dialogue reflects the gist of the conversation.
If your sister injected ‘like’ into every sentence when she was a teenager, include ‘like’ in her dialogue from that time. Also include a person’s actions, gestures and behaviours while they are speaking as this helps the reader to imagine the scene and the person’s personality with greater clarity.
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