When writing with the “I” pronoun, it is not enough to simply describe the events from your point of view – you must consciously develop yourself into a character just like a novelist develops a protagonist. Readers want to know who is speaking the same way they want to know any character in a story.

Phillip Lopate, an extraordinary essayist, provides the following advice about how to develop yourself into a character:

–First, you need to acquire some distance from yourself. You need to be able to see yourself from the ceiling; to know, for instance, how you are coming across in social situations, and to assess accurately when you are charming, and when you seem pushy, mousy, horny or ridiculous.

Writing Exercise: Write about an emotional experience you had recently—perhaps one where you were angry or frustrated or afraid. Then, complete this free write: During this experience, I looked to others like…

–You must understand your quirks… the idiosyncrasies, stubborn tics, antisocial mannerisms, and so on that set you apart from the majority. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who purposely wears mismatched socks, or who—when drinking from a drinking fountain—must swallow seven times, or who adds things to the to-do list at the end of the day only so you can cross them off, or who loves the Miss America pageant, even though you consider yourself a feminist. Quirks add memorability and dimension, and when you can communicate a quirk to readers you become more real to them.

Complete this freewrite: I’m the kind of person who…

–You must be able to dramatize yourself. This does not mean inventing or adding colorful traits that aren’t true. But rather, positioning those traits that are true in the most clearly focused, sharply defined light.

Complete this freewrite: People who know me remember me most for my….

–Mining quirks is only the beginning, however. The effective essayist also understands how such things as ethnicity, gender, religion, social class, geography, sexual orientation and politics have shaped her character. This is especially true in memoir, in which the stories being recounted are shaped to a large degree by a person’s childhood. Think about Educated, for example, which recounts a woman’s journey from a fundamentalist Mormon childhood in which she received no formal education to obtaining a PhD from Cambridge University. Her memoir recounts, in detail, her father’s survivalist beliefs, her relationship with her brothers, her lack of a public school education, and how the land she grew up on influenced her.

In the story I wish to tell, my actions, thoughts and beliefs were most influenced by the fact that I (i.e., was born poor in the South, grew up with alcoholic parents, attended boarding school from the time I was eight)

Now, choose a second characteristic, and write about how that influenced your story (i.e., I was born with a facial disfigurement, I grew up in foster homes, I came out as a lesbian in the 1960s)

–One of the challenges to writing about yourself as a character is having an awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Even if you weren’t aware of those thoughts and emotions at the time, you must discover them as you write.