Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Characters, Emotions and Memories

In her book Creating Characters Kids Will Love Elaine Marie Alphin devotes at least three chapters to recalling and using our own childhood memories to create compelling characters. She explains it this way:
  • capture and record your childhood memories
  • record in particular the way you felt during those incidences
  • listen to family stories and record them
  • observe today's children and record their speech, actions, attitudes
  • learn how to put yourself in today's children's places, their thoughts and emotion
  • blend all of these elements together to create incredible kid characters
Early on in the book Alphin gives a detailed process by which she recalls childhood memories and she emphasizes capturing the emotion of our memories. She says on page 53,

Writing fiction is completely different from writing your memoirs. Using your experiences in fiction is a way to show your readers the deeper truth of what memory has taught you...Do this by letting yourself make changes in what actually happened, while holding on to the reality of your emotions.

Episodes in real life can be unresolved, but your fiction should build to a climax that allows your main character to come to terms with the event still haunting your memory.

I experienced this first hand this weekend--not with writing fiction, but with memoirs. I found an opportunity to submit some personal memories (stories), to an anthology to be published in 2011. You can find the details here.

Like all anthologies this book has a narrow focus on the types of stories to be included. On top of that the guidelines specify what kind of take-away value to include in each story. In other words, these aren't to be simply "feel good" stories, they are all to point to one thing--the true spirit of Christmas.

First, I had to identify the "true spirit of Christmas." Sounds easy on the surface--but it took some time to refine and distill my thoughts.

For several days last week I racked my brain trying to remember the 61 Christmases of my life and trying to sift out incidences that would meet the criteria for this book. After three days of this I called in the heavy artillery--my husband, Jerry. He can't remember where he lays his glasses today, but he can remember in vivid detail every incident that has occurred in our life over the past 40 years.

He talked, I listened. He reminded me of a couple of things that might fit. Then, like the wise man he is, he left me alone to "cogitate" as my Daddy always said. He left me alone to ramble through those memories.

As I rambled I began to feel those emotions that had locked the memories into my head. One memory led to another, and that one led me down the path to another. My fingers flew over the keys as the memories tumbled into view. I laughed when I typed certain people's names. I cried as I typed the details of some  incidents. I cringed when I remembered certain places.

I wasn't typing words--I was typing my emotions. And that made the telling of the STORY behind each incident flow like warm maple syryp. having that clear focus in mind made the take-away value of each story rise to the top effortlessly. As I experienced those emotions again I was able to tap into details that I had long forgotten, or so I thought.

Brain research clearly indicates that it is emotion that creates strong connections in our brains. It is emotion that causes buried memories to rise to the surface whether we want them to or not.

And all of us writers know that it is emotion that connects our readers to our characters and to our stories.

Yep. I do believe God really knew what He was doing when He created us to be emotional beings. Beings who feel, who respond, who connect to other human beings in real life, and in great fiction, too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Anonymous said...

You are putting your all into this one. The Christmas spirit will shine through.

Linda A.

Carol said...

good points about the difference between writing fiction and memories.Will return to this blog next time I teach this! thanks.

Cheryl Barker said...

I may submit to this Christmas book project, too. Need to think about it some more... Good luck to you, Jean!

Jean said...

Thanks, Ladies, for leaving a comment because they are such encouraging words to me.


WordWrangler said...

"I wasn't typing words--I was typing my emotions. And that made the telling of the STORY behind each incident flow like warm maple syrup."

I love that! It needs to flow and "stick" with (much like maple syrup does). :) Great analogy.

This is a wonderful post for those writing for the Highlights for Children contest!


Janet, said...

Good post about capturing the emotion of your memories. I find it hard to remember things from my past. When I smell certain scents,it brings back memories to me.