Everyone Wants Something!

In applying some general writing rules to your memoirs, I’m up to Rule 3 of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story.

Rule 3: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

This rule makes me laugh. I think Vonnegut is saying that you shouldn’t bring in characters unless you give the reader some understanding of what motivates that character and what that person is seeking. I’m not sure this applies to an autobiography, though. In fiction, you have more of a choice about introducing and developing characters than you do as a narrator of a true life story. For example, you may name a grandparent who died when you were too young to recall a lot about the person, and you can’t just make it up! You may talk about a teacher in terms of how that person impacted your life, but you’re not really concerned with the teacher’s own needs and desires.

What I think you can take from this rule, though, is to be open and analytical about what you want at each stage of your life. Don’t just describe what happens; clarify what you hoped would happen, what you wanted to get from your relationships and why you pursued the goals you did. If you also feel it’s useful to flesh out some of the other people in your life, keep in mind Vonnegut’s third rule of delving into those people’s dreams and expectations.