Memoir is not fiction, yet some of the literary conventions used in the genre of memoir are the same as those used in novels. Plot, dialogue, and character are three shared devices.

Fiction and memoir share a structural emphasis on narrative arc. In fiction, this is called a plot line. After setting the scene and introducing the characters through some dialogue and action, there is an inciting incident which creates tension or conflict and pushes the plot forward in a series of escalating incidents that reach a climax and eventual denouement. Real life rarely follows such a clean trajectory of chronological events so the writer must take liberties with the structural development of the story. A memoir is more than a chronicle of events, it’s a hero’s journey of personal transformation. This should not be misunderstood as permission to alter the facts, but to rise to the challenge of writing your story to provide the reader with its intended cathartic effect.

The writer of memoir is a narrator. The reader only knows what the writer narrates. The narrator in memoir must also be the protagonist, the major character in a story with which the audience with identify and champion. Many writers in their first draft of manuscripts haven’t reflected back upon how they have introduced and presented themselves to the reader. They’ve often given a great deal of consideration to the representations of other characters in their memoirs. Concerns about protecting privacy, anonymity, family secrets, legal and financial ramifications for those who might read about themselves in your book can blind you to your own self-presentation as a character.

Review your manuscript from the opening page to the last with your main character in mind. How do you introduce yourself to the reader? How do you deepen the disclosures of conflict between characters and within the protagonist? Do you use interior dialogue? Can you conjure a character sketch of yourself from what is revealed in  your manuscript? Does this sketch mirror your current biographical profile?

In book publishing today the author is the brand and the book is the product. In the genre of memoir this is paramount to preparing for publication. Not only  are your writing talents on review, but your personal story and experiences go under public scrutiny by every reader. That’s heavy. Fiction writers may be attached to their fictional characters but if someone doesn’t like a character or their actions they don’t dislike the author. What are the character traits you can highlight as marketing features? If you are the brand, how will you brand yourself in the marketplace of memoir writers?

The presentation of self as an author in your manuscript is a process of personal construction through careful editing. Publishing is going public and unlike other genres your sense of self and personal identity are intimately tied up with contents of your book. Before you submit your manuscript to an agent or acquisition editor, a final self-reflective reading of your manuscript for your own character’s sake is highly recommended.

Has all of this made you self-conscious? Effect intended. Self-consciousness is a good thing for writers. It’s not the same thing as self-editing and stuffing down those uncomfortable feelings. Instead explore them. Readers like narrators who are flawed humans situated in interesting circumstances. Your readers want to you know that you are not okay. Finding your authentic voice as a narrator and telling your truth is the literary challenge to memoir.

What kind of narrator are you? Paint a portrait of yourself as the protagonist in your hero’s journey.

2 thoughts on “In memoir, the narrator IS the protagonist

  1. I am the narrator in a memoir of me and family, creative non fiction, can I refer to myself
    by name, as if I am standing outside looking down; using past tense, 3rd person seems
    more real to me than lst person. Ex. Saying: Rita looked out the window, instead of: I looked….

    • Typically memoir is written in first-person. Perhaps you are writing a family history. Histories tend to be written in third-person. What verb tense one uses has little to do with point-of-view. Third-person limited is a POV which might be an older adult self writing about the experiences they had as a child from the perspective not of the child but of the adult who is sympathetic to what the child experienced. If it is your story, tell it in your voice.

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