How to write about family & friends

“What a character!”: How to write about loved ones in your life stories
Guest post by Tami Koenig

I find the most powerful personal stories are about emotionally compelling relationships. When writing the stories from our lives, we naturally focus on our primary relationships—those with our mother, father, brothers, sisters, lovers, partners, children and friends. These are the characters we know best.

The key to writing about these characters is to focus on their relationship to you. How do these important people in your life move you forward in some way? Do they support you or are they in conflict with you? This interaction between you and your characters is what makes a good story.

In fiction, writers use certain techniques to create characters. You can use these same techniques to paint portraits of real people from your life—past and present.

Give your character depth:

  • Through detail– Use your senses to capture their essence. (smell, sound, touch, taste, sight)
  • Through gestures – Identify any quirks, how they walk, nervous habits, or mannerisms.
  • Through their own words – Include special sayings, unusual words, slang, and colloquialisms.

You’ll create a well-rounded picture if you consider three perspectives: how other people see this person, how this person sees himself or herself, and how you see this person.

In Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer offers a writing exercise that’s become a favorite with my students. It’s called “How to Be…”

  1. Think of someone you know very well—you know their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.
  2. Make a list of gestures and behaviors as if you were writing a how-to guide for the impersonation of that person.
  3. When you’ve completed the list, choose the characteristics you like best and include them in a 1- or 2-page written portrait of that person.

As an example, here’s the list I made about my dad.

How to Be Daddy

  • Jingle the change in your pocket
  • Don’t own any shorts or sandals
  • Crack walnuts and tell you to “chew ‘em up good,” even when you’re all grown up
  • Drive a fancy car a few models too old
  • Always have to “see a guy”
  • Give anyone down on their luck a job or a place to sleep
  • Laugh at Red Skelton, Redd Foxx and Art Carney
  • Give everyone at the table food off your plate
  • Be afraid of big dogs, but be cool about it
  • See great possibility in a piece of old junk
  • Say “Isn’t that Van Johnson?” during every old movie you see
  • Tell stories about your grandparents with great love and affection
  • Be mystified by all things financial
  • Have a head full of white hair and a twinkle in your eye


tkoenigTami Koenig is a retired writing coach and believes writing stories from your life should be fun and easy—and that families would rather have some stories from you, even if they’re not perfect, than have no stories at all.

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Categories: guest posts, writing exercises, writing tips

14 Comments on “How to write about family & friends”

  1. Luanne
    August 1, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    I love the “How to be Daddy” list!

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

      Me too! I will never get tired of reading Tami’s list of How to Be Daddy, it gives me such a smile. And I’m working on my own – my Dad is going to love it.

    • Luanne
      August 2, 2013 at 8:27 am #

      Does he read your blog or are you going to give him the list?

    • August 5, 2013 at 9:05 am #

      I think he lurks on occasion but I’m looking forward to giving it to him. :)

  2. August 1, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Brilliant advice. I read Tristine’s book years ago and had forgotten all those juicy exercises. Thanks for the advice to pull it off the shelf again.

    • August 1, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      I was very surprised that my library didn’t have this book – they seem to have everything else. So I’ve ordered it and am looking forward to the ‘juiciness.’
      Thanks for stopping by!

    • August 2, 2013 at 9:22 am #

      My other favorite is Judith Barrington’s Writing The Memoir: From Truth to Art. I love all the writing exercises—I can go back and do them again after time has passed and end up with a completely different story!

  3. Cate Russell-Cole
    August 4, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    Reblogged this on Write Your Life Story and commented:
    This is a must read if you are talking about people you know in your memoir. Thanks to Tami and Flash Memoirs for this great post. Please follow them.

  4. August 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    Thanks Cate! I love your blog and always enjoy your tweets.

  5. Sarah Knights
    September 9, 2013 at 2:40 am #

    Some great ideas, thanks.

    • September 10, 2013 at 8:41 am #

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Sarah.


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