Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing Characters - A Different Perspective

Plenty has been written about creating and developing characters, but I ran into a new question while speaking at a local college the other day.

I explained that a writer ought to know everything about his character, including not only where and when he was born, but his favorite foods, what he’s most comfortable wearing, his level of education and so on. As I described Ledger, my African-American character in The Reluctant Daughters, a young man raised his hand and asked, tentatively, “Excuse me, but what could a – er – older white woman like you know about a four-year-old black boy?”

Fair question. I smiled at his obvious embarrassment in referring to my senior years. His question did give me pause. He was right. What could I know about a four-year-old slave child being torn from his mother and shipped to England along with cotton and other goods? The child lived in an English manor house, was educated by the same private tutors who had taught the two young men who had bought him on a bet. One brother claimed the Africans weren’t human and it didn’t matter that they were being sold like livestock. The other said otherwise and offered to prove it by buying the child himself and raising him. Armbruster Slade, the name they gave the boy, grew up to be a highly educated gentleman with no place to call home. Eventually, he is given his freedom, an annuity and sent out into the world, where one day he meets Elizabeth Ackert Riis, who struggles to care for her invalid husband.

As they get to know one another, she is not only impressed with his intelligence and genteel manners, but his ability to do mathematical equations in his head. She dubs him “Ledger,” and the name sticks.

In my character list, I wrote many details about Ledger, including the fact that he enjoyed roast beef and potatoes with parsnips and small onions, Yorkshire pudding, and aged cognac. Most of these details are not in the book, but knowing everything about him, gives his character meaning and depth.

How do I know about a four-year-old slave being torn from his mother? I don’t, but I can certainly imagine what any four-year-old might feel like when taken away from the only family he/she knows. It doesn’t matter the race, sex, or station in life. As for being raised in an alien environment, that felt easy to write. As a small child I was removed from my family in New York City and sent to live with strangers in a small town in upstate New York. Though younger than Ledger, I recall curiosity and wonder about my new “family.” My memories of life before the country house are of dark stairwells, dirty alleys, and noisy streets. Those memories remained buried until I began to create Ledger. It was maybe a year or more after his “birth” that I connected the dots.

We all have buried memories of people and places that can come to life if we let our minds wander.

Veronica Helen Hart is the author of several award winning character driven novels. Find her at