Memorable by Association

I wound up doing a lot of writing this past week. A lot of writing, a lot of pre-writing and a lot of talking about writing, as it were.

Something that came up a lot was character. Not surprising, as I was at the point of creating some new characters for a project. It got me thinking about a meeting I’d had not so long ago with some writers where I’d gleaned a bit of clarity on something that I’d never really thought about before.

We were discussing a fellow’s project for which he was writing a number of character profiles. The characters were all male, of roughly the same age and ethnicity. The main issue he was facing was that it was difficult for the reader to keep track of which character was which.

Even though the author had given them each very different temperaments, careers and motivations, their descriptions weren’t memorable one from the next. That’s when it dawned on me that in discussing each character we were discussing them on their own, separate from the others. Once we started talking about their relationships to one another the characters started to really take form and thus, take root in our memories.

I was reminded of a memory exercise I once learned in a psychology class. Memory by association. It works like a charm; I haven’t carried a grocery list to the store since. The exercise is simple, you associate an item (say you need to buy milk, eggs and a turnip at the grocery store) with another item that you pair through rhyming to a number.


Okay, it goes like this: Start with number 1. Rhyme the number 1 with whatever comes to mind first: “One is a bun.” Now visualize your first item in association with the rhymed item. I picture a bun being dipped in a glass of milk; and milk is the item I’m trying to remember to buy at the grocery store. Same goes for 2. “Two is a shoe.” I visualize a shoe with an egg in it. Eggs are the second item I need to get from the grocery store. “Three is a tree.” I picture a tree shaped like a turnip, and so on.

Merely by associating one thing to another - as ridiculous as the visuals may be - I remember them both by constructing a more complex memory.

To a certain extent this memorability would probably come about in the story writing process just by having the characters interacting together, thereby forming some of those associations. But in the context of my fellow writer who was just trying to define his characters early on in the form of profiles, it was a great revelation. Also a good way to start his characters off on the right foot by giving them strong ties to one another.

And that grocery list thing is pretty top notch too.

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