Because memoirists can’t change what happened and who is involved in the particular memoir slice of life story they are telling, it’s all about what they choose to show the reader about the secondary characters in the memoir and what they choose to leave out. And whatever the memoirist tells or shows needs to be explained through the lens of the protagonist.
Secondary characters grow and change within the story arc of the protagonist in fiction or memoir. You don’t want just plot puppets, characters used to move the story forward without any background or desires of their own. All characters think they’re the hero of their own story according to Lisa Cron in her Story Genius course. But when you’re crafting a story, you want the protagonist driving the change within the story, not the secondary characters.
In memoir, the other characters are real life people. And the reason why they are in the story is to amplify and support the protagonist’s transformational arc of change. The reader needs to get a sense of what the secondary characters are about and what their specific agendas are. They are real people with real lives. The memoirist can’t change anything about their real lives or she’s writing fiction—not memoir.
In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, my husband and our children play an informative role in helping me and hindering me in my attempt at college. I felt like a specimen under a microscope with not only my own family watching to see how I handle college, but also my mother and siblings. I felt like everyone was waiting for me to fail.
Like in many families, my five children are all different. But as the protagonist in my memoir, I not only need to distinguish each of my children for the reader, I also need to remember to include only what matters about their lives to the story I am telling, my journey through college, my understanding of what education is all about. When I talk about distinguishing each child, I don’t mean what they look like. I’m talking about their personalities, how they act, what’s important to them and how that affects me the protagonist in the memoir.
For instance, my second daughter Michelle is the family brainiac. Every family seems to have one! But what does that mean to Victoria in the memoir story. It means that even at a young age, Victoria relies on Michelle as a family [and later college classwork] sounding board. But because Michelle is young and inexperienced in the beginning of Victoria’s college journey, Michelle still wants Mom’s attention, still needs to be individually noticed within the family.
Marie, the oldest, is special needs. She consumes most of Victoria’s time and is the impetus for Victoria to begin college. Marie can process only one thing at a time. Victoria has trouble remembering this and frequently becomes frustrated.
My husband Bill’s task in the memoir story is to be the voice of reason. He tries to get Victoria to stop and listen to others, a very difficult job as Victoria’s always short on time. He feels Victoria is consumed by her studies [true], thus taking too much time away from family, increasing his workload, and denying him “couple time.”
Bill’s job is to counter what father had said to Victoria. Bill needs to change what is ingrained in Victoria, that she’s not good enough for college/not smart enough for college. He, along with other secondary characters, chips away at Victoria's misbelief that she’s inferior to those who attend or attended college. Victoria can do whatever she sets her mind to—even if she needs to study/learn differently or take longer to do so, like Marie.
My son William, the middle child, is smart, but needs to be watched to be sure he does all his assignments. He’s laid-back, not high-strung like Victoria. During Victoria’s college years, he has a calming effect on her. But he, too, wants his time with Mom.
The family is used to having Victoria’s time. She doesn’t mind. This is her life. But if Victoria wants to succeed in college, things would need to change because she still learns differently, like her daughter Marie, and needs to play catch-up with the more traditional college student.
*Please feel free to offer comments or ask questions about my secondary characters. This helps me to move forward on my memoir.*
Whether it’s memoir or fiction, each secondary character needs to have a specific personality, a reason to be, that benefits the main storyline. As the writer, you include only the facets of secondary characters’ lives that pertain to the story you are telling.
Once again, I’d like to thank Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator Lisa Cron for helping me to understand these concepts in my memoir.
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