Memoir Writing–Develop Your Characters Through Setting

Every story needs a believable setting. Setting will both put your characters in their context and make them seem real.

The setting is both where and when your story occurs. The where is the place in which the story occurs. It includes interiors and exteriors of buildings, the landscape, and the political demarcations (town, county, country, etc.). The when includes the calendar time as well as the history of the characters and of their community (family, group, nation, etc.). Setting, like character, is also best established with ample sense-oriented details.

Always place your story in a recognizable setting. That is, use descriptive writing to show us where your story occurs! Let us see the double Cape, with its faded red paint and two dormers directly above the downstairs windows. Give us a view of the living room inside, to the left of the front entrance, where you were sitting in one of the stuffed wing-backed chairs. Let us notice you passing your finger over the worn arm rest as you come to a frayed upholstery cord and thoughtlessly pull it. Point out the full-leafed maples and oaks (not just generic trees) outside the clear window next to your chair and hear the car that is crunching stones in the driveway. Let us taste the pastries–cobblers and brownies and molasses cookies–that you are being served on large oval china that belonged to the grandmother of your hostess.

Without the sort of tangible physical setting provided in the paragraph above, your story remains an ethereal piece–inhabited by phantoms in a conceptual space. You story needs to have a sense of place that is very real. Descriptive writing full of sensory details will do that.

Your character also inhabits intangible settings that are not physical. Writers must pay attention to these spiritual, historical, cultural, and economic settings in order to effectively convey full characters! What is your character’s cultural community: Yankee, Jewish, Lithuanian, African, or Chinese? Show us how the person interacts with this background. We need to know about the person’s economic status: is she the wife of an upper-income lawyer or a single woman who works as a secretary at a hardware store in a small town; is he the third son and sixth and last child of a mill worker and a store clerk or the only child of a heart surgeon father and corporate lawyer mother? Is your character the first person in her family to graduate from high school? The reader needs to know the education levels, religious affiliations, and spiritual affinities of the people you are writing about. Your characters will otherwise remain stick figures without any contexts–or, to use another image, fish out of water.

In short, as part of the setting, we need to know the entire context that surrounds your character. These include: physical, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, economic, educational, professional, occupational, personal and public. These aspects of your characters must be explored through descriptive writing.

The setting is a very important aspect of your lifestory. It can change your story from a parochial one that is of interest only to family and friends to a universal story that becomes the voice of a generation and of an shared experience.

Good luck writing!


About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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