Varieties of Family Stories
You’ve set out to write your family story. But you keep hearing different genres thrown about. What genre does your family story fall into? It could be any of these.
Memoir: A memoir is highly personal and uses a narrow lens, looking at a snapshot in time. Now the snapshot may cover a period of many years, but it’s not a birth to now telling.
Autobiography: An autobiography is also personal. You are the main character, and this will cover a longer scope of time, with a wider lens than a memoir would have.
Biography: A biography’s main character would be someone else, not you as the author. It could be a significant family member. The scenes and events would be filtered through their connection to the main character.
Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is just that. It’s historical and may be based on actual events and happenings, but it will be largely fictionally created. When I wrote my story, Fat and Sassy, it was based on my grandparents and my mom and her siblings when they were young. I had a lot of real events and memories that I drew from, but had to embellish so much to create a tale, that I ventured into historical fiction. It’s not a true family history, as it didn’t go into my grandparents earlier days, or their family tree before them.
Characterization: Bringing Our Ancestors to Life
A common complaint from readers and editors is that the character didn’t come alive. We want our characters to come to life on the pages, whether they’re real ancestors we’re writing about or fictional ones that we’ve created. What’s involved in bringing a character in our story to life? What do we need to do to create compelling characters so readers want to keep reading?
There are several methods to add layers of depth to our characters – real or imagined- so that readers will connect more closely with the people on our pages. We want readers to be able to see, touch, feel, and hear the people we are paying tribute to with these tales.
The details we use are key to breathing life into the people that walk the pages of our stories. Use the details to show what’s happening in their world.
Where do they live? What does the area look like? What kind of home do they have?
What do they see? Are they surrounded by wooded areas or farms? Do they live in a congested, urban area full of traffic and commotion?
How do they feel about it? If a move across the country is involved, are they excited at the prospect of adventure, or nervous about re-adapting to a new environment?
What do they look like? Did a gray, tight bun always adorn her head? Did he have shoulder-length, scraggly locks? Was he as thin as a rail? Are feet always moving in a soft-shoe little dance? Was a cake or pastry always near at hand, as evidenced by their ample girth?
I utter a mention of caution about the details. While they are essential to help bring the story alive in your reader’s imagination, we also want to use the details and adjectives sparsely. Too much description will overwhelm the reader and keep the story from moving forward in an easygoing flow. Think of the details as a sprinkling of seasoning over a fine dish. You want just enough to accent, but not so much that it becomes the main ingredient.
Show How They’re Relatable
Find and show elements of your ancestors that are relatable. As humans, we’re not totally all evil or all sweetness. Even the sternest authoritarian of the past must have had some redeeming feature. If we can find the dichotomy of their lives and bring it out in our tales, as characters in the advancing plot of life, they’ll be more relatable and real.
Can you dig up information that reflects on what made them the way they were? Were they abandoned at a young age? Working at the mills since the age of 8? Mother of 12 children in a span of 14 years? Was great-great-grandmother a Civil War victim, widowed at a young age as the family farm was pillaged and burned? What in their past motivates them and supports their actions and attitudes?
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