“She puts on her armor, mounts her modern-day steed, leaves loved ones behind, and goes in search of the golden treasure.”
Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey
“Hard is holy”
The important thing to remember when you’re in the messy middle of writing your memoir, is that no-one is interested in your story.
The details of your life only matter in-so-far as they make your story relatable on a universal scale.
You need to know how to assess your story – and the central character (the heroine, which is ALWAYS you, in memoir) – objectively, in order to write a compelling personal story.
This is one of the most psychologically profound aspects of writing memoir: you learn to see your story as something outside of you, and then you shape and shift it, which is incredibly empowering. But it also (perhaps paradoxically?) teaches you how much you have in common with humans the world over, to explore your own story – and character – in depth.
Read on for what makes a good heroine in memoir, and what makes a reader care.
Tip: In memoir the protagonist, the heroine, the hero, is always the narrator (you).
Story is a profoundly human thing.
Think of when you watch a great movie or read an incredible book, how much you root for the hero or heroine, you physically want them to overcome an obstacle, you cry when they’re hurt, you tighten your throat when they’re in danger.
I love Law and Order SVU. Olivia Benson is my heroine. I can rely on her to have the skills and abilities to overcome whatever battle is set up in the opening scenes (da dung!) but she also keeps me guessing, because she acts a little unexpectedly, and her challenges are always just that little bit out of reach that we’re never quite sure she’ll get there.
This is how you write a compelling memoir: You surprise the reader with new challenges over and over, but you also show them that you (the heroine) have the skills to handle the slings and arrows of misfortune.
Here’s the trademarks of a good heroine:
They’re missing something or someone
There’s a sense of lack with every heroine, and the story shows them turning the wheels to compensate for this lack or find the missing piece. This is intriguing.
The beginning of your memoir will explore this ‘lack’, and set up the journey to wholeness to find the answer or missing piece.
They’re weak and they’re human
They resist the call to adventure at first. Maybe two or three times. Like all of us, they don’t want to leave the comfort zone straight away.
They make huge mistakes and bumble along in their battle to get to the ‘other side’ of whatever it is they’re attempting, and this is how we identify with them.
Why? Because we’re weak too.
We all have addictions and blind spots and secrets and shame and things we’d rather not address until the pain gets too bad or the desire for something good supercedes that weakness.
No-one comes into this world with it all figured out. No-one. People read true stories precisely because they want to see how a relatable heroine can slay the dragon (or catch the perp – a-la Benson! God I love her).
Tip: Don’t, whatever you do, write yourself as perfect, in your memoir. No one wants that, no one can relate to that, and it all makes for a really unstasifying journey. Dive into your anguish and your agony, deep-dive into those moments of doubt, the reasons you didn’t answer the call, the problems on your path that made your victory even sweeter.
They go all in to reach their goal (and get imbalanced along the way)
Once they’ve overcome that initial resistance, a good heroine is all in. This is why I love Olivia Benson. She’s imbalanced – all good heroes and heroines are. They overcompensate in some elements of their lives because that’s what the story relies on. You must slay the dragon, or tear your muscles to rebuild them in pursuing whatever your goal is.
No-one captures the castle without a few scratches and bruises along the way.
It’s in this stretching and straining to conquer and resolve that the heart of a good story lies. The seventh attempt to leave a bad relationship that works out, the recovery from broken bones to get back to Olympic shape.
Tip: Explore the imbalance to show the strength in your heroine (you). This is when the reader really gets invested – we see you straining and obsessing and we want you to conquer, even if the world seems to be throwing more and more obstacles your way.
The heart of the story is in this imbalance – all that you’ll go through, to reach a conclusion to the matter. This makes us (the reader) invest in your story, too.
Give us a reason to want you to win.
Show us what it took to get there.
An aspect of their feminine self is wounded
In the 21st century, we’re ruled by the patriarchy. There’s a definite imbalance there. I don’t know any western woman who hasn’t taken on a slightly masculine energy just to exist in this current era. We hold our keys tight while walking home, we don’t cry at work even if the homeless people we passed on the way broke our heart, we hide the fact that once a month we bleed for days at a time and no-one talks about these things because the patriarchy is so entrenched that even in a first world country like Australia, we’ve only just lost the ‘luxury’ tax on a product we physically need to survive – sanitary items.
What does this have to do with memoir?
As a female protagonist, there’s no way to tell a female story (your memoir) without exploring how this entrenched patriarchy has wounded or otherwise affected your experience of the world.
Read Steph Jagger’s UNBOUND for a great example of how she explores this. One of her universal themes is this desire to compete with the boys and the gender imbalance in the modern-day. But it’s in seeking a resolution to this imbalance that is the final quest and at the heart of that memoir.
What (possibly broken or disowned) part of your feminine self do you need to embrace, and explore, in your memoir? What part of the feminine will you seek to reclaim at the conclusion of your story?
They undergo intense transformation
You don’t start your memoir with all the answers, with all the abilities to obtain the ‘nectar’ or key outcome or quest. This is where the transformation comes from – making the required changes to ‘survive’ in the special world, the heart of the quest, the striving. The character we meet at the beginning of the story will be changed by the end. If there is no change, there is no story. A good heroine changes and transforms. The best part of any memoir is in that final ordeal (internal or external) where we see them plunge to the depths only to resurface, changed, with the ‘elixir’.
They receive help from allies
Just as Olivia Benson often receives a random flash or Ice T steps in at the last minute and has her back just as the gun’s been thrown from her hand, etc! – in our lives, we never go anywhere without magical helpers turning up to assist us.
I dare you to examine any big thing you’ve ever done and not find one single person who helped you. Perhaps it wasn’t a person, perhaps it was an animal, a natural force, or just a turn of events that made things that little bit easier for you to continue when you were about to lose it. I dare you!
Perhaps, like Cheryl Strayed on the quest that was WILD, it was just a change of weather that meant you didn’t die of thirst?
Explore all your allies and mentors. What tiny, seemingly insignificant thing changed the course of one element of your quest?
A word, a smile, a gift?
These can be precious turning points in your memoir, and should be used in any scenes you write around obstacles or ordeals or that first inciting incident.
They go deep and dark
There is absolutely no transformation worth writing about, without plunging to the depths. I’m sorry, but it’s the way story works, and it’s the way life works.
We learn profound truths through change and loss. No story worth reading is all happy events and minor obstacles.
- PROMPT: What was the biggest obstacle, the biggest pain you faced, in resolving the quest of your memoir? This is your deep, dark abyss. It’s also the moment you probably changed the most.
They battle an internal enemy
I read somewhere that the only enemy in memoir is ever internal. I’m not sure if this is true, but there is always an internal enemy. We have doubt. Resistance. Addictions. Pain. Trauma. Why don’t we do what’s best for us? Because of habit, fear, inherited beliefs. In Ruth Clare’s ENEMY – a memoir of growing up with a father who was violent from Vietnam-war-induced PTSD – her inner enemy as an adult is the fear that she will be just like her father when she has children. It’s in the resolution of that fear that we see her conquer.
The biggest transformation in the heroine of memoir is always internal.
What internal enemy do you either kick to the curb by the end of your memoir, or beautifully embrace and heal?
They return with something significant
See above. This isn’t usually a physical item, it’s very often hard-won wisdom or knowledge that can be shared. It could be a ‘missing piece’ that leads to wholeness. With Olivia Benson, her own relationship issues and child-rearing agonies are sort of channelled into these victories she has with other people’s children. It’s almost like the ‘elixir’ directly relates to the heroine’s imbalance.
Memoir is personal story, yes, but it deals with psychological issues everyone can relate to. Whether you’ve embraced a new identity through marrying in a different culture to overcoming a stutter and painful shyness, the end-point for your heroine will reference the beginning. You’ll show that she’s changed because she deals with an old story in a new way.
This is one of the most satisfying parts of any story – the return. Think of when you watch a sportsperson win something incredible … I’ve cried, watching a woman win something against all odds, particularly I know the story behind the struggle (Stephanie Gilmore comes to mind). It’s so satisfying, we feel like we’re achieving something too. There’s something primal in the need for that moment of victory.
And this is what good memoir does for the reader – it gives us a sense of victory, too, over whatever internal and external forces threatened to keep the narrator from retrieving the golden chalice.
Think about some of your favourite memoir heroines – what do they have in common? I’m currently reading Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance and her obsession is really compelling.
This is an excerpt from my 90 Day Memoir online course, which covers the key archetypes in memoir and how to make them compelling, and a whole lot more.