One of the rules of fiction that applies to memoir writing is to create a likable protagonist, as I mentioned earlier this week in my review of Julie Powell’s Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage, and Obsession.
The only raw material a memoirist has with which to build is herself. If you’re unlikable, you’re in trouble.
Honestly, if you think you’re unlikable, you should probably spend some time in therapy before you start writing your memoir. Instead, let’s assume you are likeable, you only need to show readers. But how?
I love this prescription from Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need! He’s advising screenwriters, but his suggestion works for all kinds of storytellers. One of Snyder’s Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics is the screenwriting rule that says: “The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win,” he writes.
In short, have your hero – in your memoir, that’s you – save the cat. Writes Snyder:
“Though you don’t have to have a scene in every movie where the hero literally saves a cat, helps an old lady across the street, or gets splashed by water at the street corner to make use love him, you must take the audience by the hand every time out and get them in sync with your main character and your story.”
Early on in your memoir, show us how you stood up for the underdog or did the right thing when it was hard. It’s doesn’t have to be a long anecdote but it needs to be early.
Or be funny. That’s an easy way to “save the cat.” That’s exactly how Jen Lancaster made egotistical and arrogant palatable in her first memoir, Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office.
But not all of us are funny. So then what? Snyder again: “The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics tell us that when you have a semi-bad guy as your hero – just make his antagonist worse!!”
Every good memoir has a villain. Sometimes the villain is not an actual person, it’s a force of nature or a disease, but help your reader root for you by, at the very least, being better than the bad guy. A fully realized villain is probably wise (since you might be describing a real person), but don’t neglect to show us how he’s bad. Jenny Lawson portrays mental illness as a formidable villain in her memoirs, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy (and she’s funny, which doesn’t hurt).
If you succeed, you’ll have your readers on your side through all kinds of bad decisions, which are a part of many memoirs.
* * *
I’m celebrating the countdown to the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982 with a month-long blogging bonanza, which means I’ll be blogging here every day this month about my book, about memoirs in general and about the launch.