Author and Character Relationships
Fiction is driven by character. And characters have to feel real and relatable or no one cares. It’s so important there’s even software that tries to help (see image above). Readers think writers can just make a character do what they want, but we know we can’t. Forcing it ends up reading… well, forced. After 15 years struggling with the main character in my novel, I’m glad our relationship was so difficult. The book is better because of it.
One day at lunch, my Monticello colleagues and I were sharing stories about the silly things tourists do. Someone joked that we had a lot of comedic material for a sitcom. I thought I would try to write a novel instead.
My first main character, “Dave,” was the curator of my imagined historic home in Virginia, the descendant of a Confederate general who was the reason the place was a tourist attraction. I thought my first draft was great, with feral farm animals popping up for comic relief as Dave struggled (comically!) to restore the rundown house. Anticipating praise, I turned over the manuscript to a friend. He said, “I loathe Dave. No, I mean I really hate this character. He’s whiny and entitled and I don’t care.” The death-knell: “I don’t care.”
After my bruised ego had recovered, I realized that maybe Dave did seem a little… off? I wondered if making him female, and in the first person, would help, allowing me to dig into my own experience living in the South. So, in one long weekend, I rewrote the entire novel. It seemed like it worked. But it bothered me when my writing group kept referring to the character, Temple, as “you” in our discussions. I wasn’t her. I didn’t want to be her. I didn’t really like her. She seemed clueless and victim-y.
Over the next ten years, I tinkered with the novel, added more depth to Temple, and details that would make her feel authentic and help me like her. I stopped trying to be funny and dealt with some issues around race and identity. But, even as the rest of the book advanced, Temple just didn’t feel quite right.
Then, things that seemed like they would never change started to change. Donald Trump was elected and white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, the town on which I’d based my novel. A counter protester was killed, run down on a street where I had walked. Things got real for me. I added conviction and a mission to my character: Temple wanted—badly—to atone for her family’s slaveholding past. Her town was in danger, and she wasn’t sure if the house was worth saving.
I sent the manuscript off to a respected literary agent and got a bite. She really liked Temple’s voice. But… where were all the Black characters? There were a few in the story, but what about in the community? It was all White.
I was horrified. She was right! Wrapped up in my difficult relationship with Temple, I’d neglected to flesh out the world she lived in. To get some distance so I could explore more freely what was going on, I rewrote the entire book again, this time in the 3rd person. I transformed the research assistant who upends Temple’s life into a Black PhD student, and they tentatively built a strong friendship and partnership. Real life provided drama, and people in the community—both White and Black—are forced to come to terms with the past as a white supremacist rally finally wakes up their insular town.
Temple is not perfect, and neither is the book. But she’s growing and trying, and I respect her now. I’m certainly not telling her what to do. Instead, she’s become my role model.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.