Are you wondering if you should write a memoir or a novel based on your life experiences? In this post, we look at six differences between a novel and a memoir.
Although a memoir is written like a novel, it is important to remember that it is not one. A memoir is true. A novel is made up. There are other general techniques, like tense and viewpoint that are handled differently in each format.
6 Differences Between A Novel & A Memoir
1. Truth vs Fiction
A memoir is a true story, even though the memoirist uses fictional techniques to engage readers and to make the story more vivid. As we have said before, a memoir is not an autobiography, which tells the story of an entire lifetime. A memoir has a narrow focus and it usually focuses on a time in your life tied together with a theme. If you are struggling to work out a theme or if you can’t remember what happened, it is better to write a novel. A novel is made up, and that is what your memoir would be if you have gaps in your memory.
A novel can be written in past or present tense. Memoirs are almost always written in present tense. If you are uncomfortable about writing in the present tense, writing a novel in the past tense might be easier.
A novel can be written in first, second, or third person, and it is generally written from the main character’s viewpoint. You can also have multiple viewpoints. A memoir is always written in first person present tense from the author’s viewpoint. If you do not want to write from the intimate first person point of view, you may be more comfortable writing a novel in third person.
4. The Characters
In a memoir, you include the real people in your life. Generally, this means that you have spoken to them about your memoir and they have given you some feedback. This does not mean that you include their viewpoint. It means that you have taken it into account. When you write about other people, tell the story from what you have seen and heard. It is your experiences you are recounting. Do not make anything up.
In a novel, you create completely original characters. Even if you are basing the novel on a real-life story. If you do this, change the character’s sex and age. Set the story in another city or country. Write in a genre that seems unrelated to the original story. In a novel, you generally have a protagonist, supported by a confidant and a love interest, who is thwarted by an antagonist.
5. The Antagonist
In a memoir, the antagonist is sometimes another person, but more often it is yourself. You have to fight your own demons almost all the way through a memoir. In a novel, you have a clearly defined antagonist, and even though your protagonist deals with their own issues, it is the antagonist who defines much of the story’s goal.
A memoir is usually based on a series of events that happened in a life. There is no set story structure. A memoir is usually about how it happened, and not what happened. A novel has a plot with a negative beginning, complicated middle, and a generally positive ending.
Read Mary Karr’s Memoir Checklist to help you decide if you are writing a memoir. Karr is an American memoirist, who is well known for her best-selling books, Lit: A Memoir, Cherry, and The Liars’ Club.
These are not the only differences between novels and memoirs, but we hope they help you decide which one you are going to write. If you want to write a novel, Writers Write – how to write a book is a great course. If you want to learn how to write a memoir, look into our Secrets of a Memoirist course.
by Amanda Patterson
© Amanda Patterson
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If you want to read more about memoirs:
- 7 Tips For Finding Your Memoir Mojo
- 7 Tips From Journalists To Write A Better Memoir
- Why You Should Write About This Time
- 7 Ways To Outline Your Memoir (& Why You Should Definitely Do It)
- Name Each Scene – A Simple Way To Motivate Your Memoir
- Why First Person Present Tense Is Perfect For Your Memoir
- How A Flashbulb Memory Can Help You Define Your Memoir