What happens when the narrator and the protagonist are one and the same?

When you’re writing a novel, you have a huge blank canvas with which to create your character portraits. Limited only by the reach of your imagination, you can create any character, as long as you do a good job at filling in the details and making your people, and the situations they encounter, believable. 

With memoir, because the primary character is YOU, the task of the writer is simpler—and more complex. 

Simpler because you don’t have to make up characters and give them the depth and breadth to be believable. You just have to recall and write down your own experience, with as much detail as you can muster, as well as the real people who have played important roles in your life. 

More complex because in a memoir, you are simultaneously the narrator and the protagonist, a duality of position that poses unique challenges. 

There are as many ways to write memoir as there are to live a life. There is no formula for how to balance your dual role of narrator and protagonist. But here are some considerations to have in mind as you work on putting your life stories on to the page.

1. Make your narrator trustworthy.

In memoir, we expect you to be a reliable narrator, and the story you are telling to be true. 

Although we know that your perspective, as narrator of your own story, will have its blind spots and biases, we need to be able to trust that you will be as candid with us as possible. 

Of course, you are free to place your story under the famously blurry banner of “autobiographical fiction” if you want to give yourself the freedom to stray from truth.

But if you call yourself a memoirist, your readers expect you as the narrator to be giving us, to the best of your abilities, a true story of you as the character. We need to be able to trust you.

2. Consider: how close in time and point of view are you-the-character and you-the-narrator?

If you’re writing a journal, the time gap between you-as-narrator and you-as-character is very close indeed, except when you slip into bringing a memory into the present moment of writing. Sometimes journals like this get published—for example, May Sarton was a master of this form of memoir. 

But if there is some temporal distance between the moment you sit down to write and the scenes you are relating, then you need to be clear on your narrator’s point of view. 

In other words, are you, as narrator, writing from the present moment, with the perspective of everything you now know and feel about the past incidents you’re describing? 

Or are you going to try, as narrator, to relate events that happened to you-as-character from your perspective at that time, without disclosing your power of hindsight? 

Either way is fine, but you should be consistent. Set up your narrator’s temporal relation to the story from the beginning of the book, and stick with it, perhaps writing your way towards a present moment, when you-as-narrator and you-as-character merge. 

3. Make sure you-as-narrator treats you-as-character with compassion and respect.

Your readers will follow your narrator’s lead when it comes to how we feel about you as character. And generally speaking, readers prefer to stories that are narrated from a sympathetic point of view. 

If you are embarrassed or ashamed of the story you’re telling, you have to find a way to tell it with compassion—or don’t tell it at all. 

As narrator, you can take a tragic moment from your life and find the humor in it, defusing a tense scene with hindsight narratorial reflections that reassure us that in the end, all was well. 

Or you could write that tragic scene in such a way that the narrator merges into the character, not knowing any more than the character does at that moment about how things will come out. This builds the kind of tension that can make your memoir a page-turner.

You could also choose to write the scene in a harsh, condemning tone, with the narrator berating the character for her stupidity in that moment. But if you take this route, I would advise you to try to write your way towards some compassion for your past self—for your reader’s sake, as well as your own. 

4. Trust your narratorial authority. 

It’s true that when you write and publish a memoir, you open yourself up to being analyzed by strangers—your readers—who may have different insights into your life story than you do. 

Then there are the other real people in your story, who may have their own ideas about how things happened—sometimes very different perspectives than yours. 

But you are the ultimate authority on your own life. Nobody knows your character better than your narrator. 

So as you write, don’t second-guess yourself too much. 

Don’t waste time and energy fretting about other people’s perceptions. Just write your truth, sharing your insights into your character’s experience as fully and deeply as you can. 

Later, you can assess whether your story might be better received in the world as “autobiographical fiction” rather than memoir. 

But as you write, give your narrator a free hand, trusting that she is telling your character’s story exactly as it needs to be told. 

5. Make sure you-as-narrator understands your purpose in sharing the story of you-as-character.

For me, the question of purpose is key when it comes to writing memoir. And this is really a question for the narrator, rather than the character. 

As the protagonist of your life story, you live your life day to day, sometimes in touch with your greater purpose, sometimes adrift and questing. 

But when you-as-narrator sit down to write memoir, you should be quite clear on your purpose in sharing you-as-character’s story. 

Whether it’s as simple as a desire to turn the straw of your trials and tribulations into (literal) gold, or an altruistic desire to share your experience in order to be of service to others in similar situations—whatever your purpose, be clear about it as you narrate your story. 

You can even share it quite baldly, as I did in the beginning of my memoir:

In writing this memoir I seek to discover how it was that I lost the instinctive reverence for the natural world that I had as a child; how I was socialized into playing the role of the cooperative, quiet woman in my time and place; and how I kept my head above water through the helping hands of stronger women, who threw me the lifelines of their fierce words and encouraged me to remember and honor what I knew as a child. I write to acknowledge and then to question the way I trusted the seductive, destructive cultural frameworks that structured my life, including the basic cultural institutions of education, career, romantic love, sexuality and marriage. I write to face the fact that I have wasted a lot of time chasing success understood in conventional terms, which I now know will only be fool’s gold if it is won at the expense of future generations.  I write out of a fierce and abiding hope that there is still time to embrace the personal, political and planetary transformations that are needed to see humanity through these perilous times into a brighter, more balanced future. 

–Browdy, What I Forgot, 6

6. Take the time to explore how your experience is related to the broader narratives of your time and place.

As a memoirist and a writing coach for memoirists, I am always seeking to help people see how their own personal experience has been shaped by the widening rings of community in which we all live. 

As narrator, we can come to understand how, as character, we have been molded by the social and geographic locations in which we’ve found ourselves. Exploring the context of your personal stories is essential because it gives readers more ways to identify with you. The more detailed you can make the tapestry of your memoir, the better readers will be able to understand their own lives through the prism of yours. 

I came to this realization late in the game of writing What I Forgot. Here are the critical couple of paragraphs where my narrator finally realized why she was sharing my character’s story:

My story…is the story of my people.  It is the story of a generation of Americans who grew up with tremendous privilege, so comfortable and coddled that we were not even aware of how very privileged we were.  It is the story of many generations of Euramericans who grew up believing that they had the right to take endlessly from the natural world, without fear of exhausting the planet’s resources, and without ever giving anything back. It is the story of my generation’s tremendous alienation from Nature, our reliance on technology and engineering to solve all problems, to the point where we could delude ourselves that we did not need the natural world to make us happy, only our own representations of her, and the resources we could extract at the push of a button.  

My story is the story of how finally, at midlife, I came back to my senses and woke up to the impending disaster that my generation had presided over unthinkingly.  Although far from unique or special, my story, honestly told, could be sent out into the world like a beacon, helping me find others who were ready to tackle these transition times head on.

–Browdy, What I Forgot, 232-33

Writing memoir gave me insight into myself as a character in my past life story, but also, perhaps more importantly, it helped me begin to understand the vital role that I could play as narrator of my life to come. 

Writing can open up pathways to the potential positive futures that glimmer in every single moment of our lives. We have more power than we realize to narrate not only our past, but also our future.

As you write your memoir, give yourself-as-narrator permission to lead yourself-as-character into the thriving future you both desire. 

As you brighten your own life, you brighten the world.

Upcoming online workshops–join me!

In this month’s “Birth Your Truest Story” session on October 11, novelist Audrey Kalman and I will be focusing on character, in both fiction and non-fiction. 

In my “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future” session on October 18, the focus will be on exploring the broader context of your personal story, aligning the personal, political and planetary threads of your life experience. 

More from the Writing Life Blog…