Our Selves as Character

When we write about our own lives, we actually have two identities.

One is that of the narrator, the teller of the tale. This identity comes through mostly in the “summary” part of our text. Our character, however, can shine forth in both the summaries and the scenes.

Much can be said about our character in any story we write. We may point to the “gist” of our character, however, in three basic points:

  • Our Key Traits
  • Our Motivation or Goal
  • Our Character Change

Our Key Traits

This is a broad category. It includes our gender and ethnicity; our age, appearance and physical attributes; our education, our acumen, our special talents; our general temperament and personality.

Our readers, especially those who do not know us, will wonder what we look like, how we dress, what kind of impression that we make. Have we attended school and, if so, what kind and how much? Are we a person who grasps things quickly or are we often ‘the last one to know’? Are we handy with our hands, the kind of person who can fix anything? Or are we a cerebral type, one who leaves most of the hands-on work to others? Are we cheerful or sober? Outgoing or reserved? Talkative or the strong, silent type? In moments of stress, do we remain calm and even-tempered or are we excitable and easily irritated? From what kind of family do we come and how has that influenced who we are? These are all key traits.

When writing a story, we have the advantage of knowing ourselves well and probably can describe ourselves better than anyone else. Even so, we face a challenge. If it is another character we are describing, we can make an observation like: “He was an older man, tall, balding, casually dressed and slightly overweight.” But if it ourselves we are describing it’s more difficult. It can sound awkward to say, “I am an older man, tall, balding, casually dressed and slightly overweight.” If we are clever, however, we can find ways to convey such key traits. 

We might have a medical appointment and be asked about our height, weight and general physical condition. If we show our Driver’s License or our Passport, it has our picture on it. We can describe that, perhaps noting the difference between it and our current appearance. We might be shopping in a clothing store, holding up an attractive outfit and thinking, “Much too large” or “Much too small.” We might use another frequent device, looking at ourselves in the mirror as we get dressed for the day or as we prepare to go out for the evening. When we break open a Fortune Cookie and read the description, we might note how well it applies to our own personality. 

“You are solid and dependable.” Oh, right. And I’ve only been late to two appointments this week.

In our elder years, most of us have a good sense of who we are and what we think. Our personalities and life philosophies will come through in what we say in the Summaries and also in our behaviour and dialogue in the Scenes that we create. 

Our Motivation / Goal

If we were writing a fictional story, the motivation or goal of our main character might seem easier to discern. We would ask ourselves what is the primary need, want, or desire of the character.  In our own life story, our motivation or goal might seem more difficult to determine. We are aware of our many needs, wants and desires.

For some people, the primary motivation or goal in life relates to material goods—to what they have or desire to accumulate. For others, it is focused more on doing, on a committed effort to achieve a particular end. For yet others, their motivation relates to a way of being—e.g. being wise, knowledgeable, always hopeful, steadfastly faithful, or unconditionally loving. When we are young, even when we are in our middle years, it can seem difficult to be certain of what gives our life purpose and direction. We might still talk about “Who I’m going to be when I grow up.” 

Fortunately, in our elder years, many of us can look back with a clearer sense of what our motivation or goal has been. For many of us, whether living at home or abroad, our needs, wants, or desires have involved service to others. We have felt called to a particular vocation or way of living. Past and present, that has been a driving force in our life and it also is the point around which our life story can be organized. 

Of course, no life story or memoir is ever totally comprehensive. However detailed our account might be, we will leave out significant events and experiences. It might help to think of any life story we are writing as an “interpretation.” We identify an important motivation or goal as a primary one and then choose events and experiences in our life that reflect it.

Character Change

In a good story, we find both external and internal action. As the events unfold, the main character is impacted and changed. As we recount our life story, can we show how we have changed? Who were we at the start of the story? And who are we now? What were the stages in our change?  Has the change been of a positive or negative kind? Did we emerge from the conflicts and challenges stronger persons? Or were we broken by them? 

The change that we undergo as we age and mature may simply be in our behaviour or in our attitude. Yet it also penetrates further, reshaping our philosophy or transforming our personality. 

This character change in a story sometimes is called one’s “character arc.” We might write down several words that described us well during our childhood or teenage years.  How well do those words now fit the self we know? What other words would we add or substitute to describe the person we’ve become? The changes and the continuity in those self-descriptive words depict our “character arc.”

Our Selves as Character

Conflict in Our Stories