A guest post by Patti Frazee
We all have, within our memories, a treasure trove of characters. Maybe it was that quirky childhood friend or the mysterious neighbors next door. Perhaps it was that mean old lady down the hill or that big brother who (almost) always tried to protect you. Or maybe it was that strong, kind father who guided you through life’s hardest lessons. Sound familiar? These are all beloved characters in Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
It’s always gratifying to delve into your own treasure trove to discover those characters who speak to you. Many characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were people from Harper Lee’s life. Her childhood friend Truman Capote was the template for Dill Harris. Her father was the backbone of Atticus Finch. How can you go into your memory and find those “characters” who motivate you to write? Maybe no one seems as memorable of Boo Radley or Dill Harris, or maybe you simply have to take a closer look.
Examine intensely those characters who speak to you, as Harper Lee did: “Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duckfluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him… his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.” Imagine if Harper Lee had ended this description at “Dill was a curiosity.” She doesn’t make us discern what she means; she shows us that he was a curiosity. She makes him curious to us by showing him through appearance, sounds, and habits.
Another “character” worth noting is the town of Maycomb, Alabama. This may also help you dive into that memory bank to create a story. Lee gave the town a personality: “Nobody in Maycomb just went for a walk…. We strolled silently down the sidewalk, listening to porch swings creaking with the weight of the neighborhood, listening to the soft night-murmurs of the grown people on our street…. The night-crawlers had retired, but ripe chinaberries drummed on the roof when the wind stirred, and the darkness was desolate with the barking of distant dogs.”
Maycomb creaks and murmurs, drums and barks. Sometimes Lee made it howl or laugh. She intentionally used language that makes us feel the town is alive. And the town is at odds with itself. It is at the center of the conflict.
Take a moment to write about the street you grew up on. Write about the trees, the birds, the sounds, what the houses looked like. Then bring a character out of one of the houses. Who is it? What does that character look like? What stands out about that character? Do you interact? Where is that character going? What happens if you follow that character? Is that character in harmony or conflict with the city or town? Why?
I grew up in a small Iowa town and I think of the woman down the street. She used to give me vegetables to take home to my family. Mom would immediately throw out the vegetables, sure that the woman had poisoned them. The woman had a reputation for being mean as a skunk, but she and I got along just fine. I sat on her porch swing with her and talked. None of the other kids liked her. They’d tease her and call her names. Parents didn’t trust her. My mom told me to stay away.
The joy of being a fiction writer is that I can go back and interact with this character. I can talk to her on the porch swing again and maybe find out why everyone hated her. Find out why she connected with me and me alone.
Notice how I started this with, “I grew up in a small Iowa town.” That means something. This town had dirt roads a block away where I once tried to walk to China only to have a policeman pick me up and take me home. This town had a culture of neighbors talking to each other, watching out for the four-year-old who wandered perhaps a bit too far. This town has a personality and is part of the story.
Go Set a Watchman gives us even more to devour. How did the characters change from one book to the other? How is Maycomb presented? Did it change from the viewpoint of Scout as a child to Scout as an adult?
As writers, texts we connect to give us the opportunity to pull back the curtains and see the magic behind the fiction, and then use that to create and better our own writing.
This article was first published by The Loft Literary Center’s The Writer’s Block blog; reproduced with permission.
Patti Frazee is teaching Who is Your Boo Radley?, Exploring Elements of Fiction and Finding Your Story, Indie Publishing Toolbox,and Navigating the Self-Publishing World this fall at the Loft in Minneapolis. She is a professional copy editor and proofreader for various Twin Cities publishers, and she has worked with many indie authors. As a publishing consultant, she helps authors get their books into the world by working in print-on-demand and ebook publishing as a book designer and project manager. Patti received an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University (St. Paul, MN) and is the author of two novels, Cirkus and Out of Harmony.