In developing characters for my novel, Meghan’s Choice, I tried to populate my fictional town of New Boston, Kansas, with as many different kinds of characters as possible to challenge Meghan Gallagher’s sensibilities.
I wanted an ex-slave who would still sort of talk like a Negro from the south, but I wanted him to be intelligent and considerate. When I was first thinking of his name, I thought of a black girl I knew in high school, her last name was Jackson. I thought about who an ancestor of hers could be. So I called him Jackson.
Normally, when putting together a character bio sketch, you answer a set of questions about their background, their likes and dislikes, how they were raised, and all that. I didn’t do that so much with Jackson. As an ex-slave, I knew how he was raised. Since he was a minor character, I didn’t go into all his history.
In fact, I was entering Meghan’s Choice in several contests last year that had word counts. I had to pretty much cut him out in order to meet that word count. After not winning any of those contests, I put him back in before submitting the novel to an Indie publisher who contacted me back in January.
At some point in Jackson’s life, I knew I wanted him to have found freedom on the Underground Railroad, so I did a little research and found a major hub was Philadelphia. I read a PDF book by William Still, who kept meticulous records of those who came through his house in Philadelphia which served as a major hub.
I came upon a story that started in Petersburg, VA and a woman named Mrs. Ann Colley. She was a white widow, who purchased a slave named Jackson in 1857. The story is told in abbreviated form. But essentially, Mrs. Colley became quarrelsome. She gave Jackson ten dollars a month as his “hire”, and he was expected to run her errands for her and pay for those expenses out of his own money, yet he was required to produce his ten dollars at the end of every month. Strange, to say the least.
I wanted an ex-slave because of the interesting way they look at the world and how they talk. I have a favorite line of my Jackson. Here’s the setup. It’s raining. Duncan is a cowboy, and he’s come to the railroad depot (just a shack at this point) to check on something. Jackson started out as a porter with the Santa Fe Railroad, that’s when Meghan met him. Now, he’s been promoted to telegrapher/ticket agent. We’re about two-thirds of the way through the book. Duncan feels happy because he’s just made up with Meghan. They’d had a spat.
Duncan walked up to the ticket window. “Hey there, Mister Jackson–how are you this fine morning?” Trains pulled in three days a week now, but the type alternated, two days freight, then one day passenger. McMasters’ beef were to be shipped on the next train out, in four days. A second track had been completed and work on a third set had already begun, with plans for at least three more.
Jackson looked up at the sky, then shook his head. “Mis-tah Duncan, I must be goin’ blind. It don’t look like a fine mornin’ to me. Why, it’s all cloudy, gray and rainin’!”
Duncan chuckled. “Ah, but Jackson, it’s beautiful. Rain nourishes the earth, causes crops to grow and keeps us clean.”
“No sir! Not me. Rain don’t keep me clean–jus’ gets me wet! What can I do for you today, my fine friend?”
“Rain don’t keep me clean–jus’ gets me wet!” I still laugh when I read that line. Maybe it’s just me. I’m hoping people will like Jackson, because I do. I love that line. I’m not like many authors who can quote chapter and paragraph everything their book says, and much of the dialogue. I’m one of those once it’s on paper…it’s out of my head. I have to remind myself what I wrote. I do that even with these blog posts at times.
In developing Jackson, I relied on historical account and facts of a real person, who happened to be named Jackson, as well as my own imagination. I felt very privileged to come upon that story about a real ex-slave named Jackson.
Many authors “cast” actors in the roles of their characters so they can visualize them in their own minds. I don’t really do that. I knew Jackson would be interesting just because of the way he talked. But if I were to cast Jackson, it would probably be with an actor who is dead, because I don’t follow much of the current popular actors/actresses. I barely know the most popular ones’ names. There was a guy in Shirley Temple movies I liked, Bill Robinson. (I had to look him up on ImDb). He was a great dancer, but he delivered his lines in the way I think Jackson would say them.
Other authors do meticulous Myers-Briggs personality types when crafting their characters. I don’t that either. Maybe I should, but I just learned what my own personality is, so who knows, perhaps in the future I will, but for now, I’m going more on short character sketches to figure out the basics.
If you’re a fiction writer, how do you develop characters? Does Jackson sound interesting to you? Leave a comment and let me know.