You may be familiar with the iconic opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Many of us end up writing about our family dynamics in memoir and personal essays, whether we planned to or not. Family members, for better or for worse, are endlessly fascinating. But how do we write about our uniquely dysfunctional families—and our parents, in particular—without being petty? How can we craft rich portraits that show their full, flawed humanity?
The more complex, the better.
Readers respond most to complicated characters. Try to be as balanced as possible in your portrayal of your parents. Showing their redeeming qualities alongside their shortcomings will make them read as human on the page. As a species, we are full of contradictions, and your parent characters should be too.
Remember that it’s difficult for readers to connect with characters who appear one-dimensional. If your mother or father is coming across as either wholly good or wholly bad, the reader is likely to distrust you as a narrator. Readers might wonder if you’ve done the processing necessary to come to terms with who your parents are/were, and if personal grievances are causing you to portray them unfairly.
Readers are also highly attuned to moments when the narrator wants them to see a character a particular way, rather than allowing them to form their own judgments. A one-sided portrayal of a parent won’t cause a reader to hate or love them—it will probably only make them detach from the narrative entirely. Capturing our parents’ complexity isn’t about giving them a “free pass” or sugar-coating their flaws. It’s about ensuring our readers can feel invested in them as characters, and as a result, stay engaged in the narrative as a whole.
If you’re writing about a difficult parent, consider how you might add nuance and compassion to their portrayal by asking the following questions:
- What might have motivated the parent to act the way they did? Was it protectiveness? Fear? Low self-esteem?
- As an adult, what do you understand about the parent that you didn’t know when you were a child?
- Think about the parent’s own trauma and family history. Can you draw connections between the parent’s actions/behaviors and their own past? The ways their own parents treated them?
On the flipside, maybe you idealize a parent. Sometimes this happens once parents have passed away; grief can make it difficult for us to recognize a parent’s shortcomings. But readers distrust perfect characters—they often read as inauthentic or cartoon-like. To help dig deeper into your parent’s complexity, ask yourself the following questions:
- What scares/scared this person? What is/was their greatest fear?
- What do you imagine is/was their biggest regret in life?
- What makes/made your parent feel embarrassed or ashamed?
Don’t tell us who your parents are. Show us instead.
Scenes allow us to watch your parents in action. We can see how they interact with you and others, observe their body language and mannerisms (biting fingernails, scowling, etc.), and hear the way they speak. Detail is at the heart of excellent character portrayals, and scenes are the perfect place to create the color and texture that brings parent characters to life.
Many of us harbor strong feelings toward our parents. This may result in a tendency to sum them up neatly in the narration: “My father was an angry man.” “My mother dealt with a lifetime of guilt.” While telling certainly has its place in memoir and personal essay, it’s often more effective to show us your parents’ personalities through scenes.
Instead of telling us your father was an angry man, show us a scene of him throwing a plate across the kitchen. Paint a picture of his anger through the details: the furrowing of his brow, the thunderous sound of the plate smashing, the way his screams echoed off the walls. A scene like this will allow readers to feel your father’s rage in a visceral, immersive way.
Showing parents in scene also helps you avoid labeling them. Labels reduce your parents to a “type,” diluting the nuance of your character portrayals. Mary Karr doesn’t call her parents “alcoholics” in her memoirs; instead, we see her pouring her parents’ vodka down the drain. Scenes and hyper-specific details are what make your parents idiosyncratic and believable to a reader.
Need help showing your parents on the page? Try this writing exercise:
Write a scene about a time you fought with or were scolded by a parent. The key here is using details to humanize the parent and show the reader the dynamic between the two of you. Play with the tension between what the character of “you” wants in the scene, versus what the character of your parent wants. Try to include the following elements:
- Your parent’s physical characteristics
- Your parent’s body language (twirling hair, stiffening of the shoulders, etc.)
- Your parent’s speech (word choice, tone, cadence)
- Your parent’s actions and reactions
- Speculation about what your parent might have wanted and/or felt in the scene (which may be in conflict with what you felt/wanted)
Use “telling details” that capture your parents’ essence.
Sometimes just one detail about a parent can speak volumes about who they are. These “telling details” could be as simple as a nervous tic, a favorite catchphrase, or the way they take their coffee. In my memoir, I describe how my father told waiters we had a show to catch (even when we didn’t) just to speed up the service. My mother insisted on standing on the outside of the group in family photos, doing her best to slip out of the photo entirely. Carefully chosen details evoke a huge amount about a parent’s life and identity.
Don’t neglect “telling” physical descriptors. Sometimes we’re so familiar with family members we don’t include the level of detail necessary for readers to see, hear, and feel them on the page. Details like how your parents dressed, the way they walked, what cherished objects they kept in their purse or wallet, can go a long way.
Which “telling details” about your parents will capture their essence on the page? Brainstorm ideas by filling in the blanks.
- On a hot day, my mother/father always wore _______ and drank _______.
- The object my mother/father most treasured was ______ because _______.
- When we had company over, my mother/father would ________.
- When my mother/father was annoyed, her/his voice would ________ and her/his face looked like ________.
- Around the holidays, my mother/father would _________, but she/he would never ________.
Parents have the potential to be your most vivid characters. Their nuances and contradictions provide incredibly fertile ground for writers. Still, writing compassionately about parents is no easy task. Applying character-focused craft techniques—leaning into complexity, developing scenes, and using evocative details—is crucial to making parent characters believable and engaging for the reader. Only then can we hope to bring our parents, and their humanity, to life on the page.