When I visited with seventh grade Language Arts classes at a local middle school to talk about Chinaberry Summer, the students asked me great questions. One student wanted to know: "Who's your favorite character in your book?"
Now his question was something that I had never really considered until that moment because each of my characters is obviously my favorite. After all, I created them, and their personalities developed inside my head. I wrote the words that they say to one another, and I described how they interact with other characters. All of them are members of the world of the Stevenson family in the fictional location of Slippery Branch, Georgia.
Now some of my characters are quite ornery and unlikable (Aunt Pearl). One is a sneaky thief (Joe Borders), and one is a cruel, worrisome bully (Rusty Jackson). Several of the teachers need to ask themselves why they became teachers. And let’s not forget Raleigh Brown, the week-end visitor and family scourge from town. Two of these characters undergo dramatic changes in my second book.
But who is my absolute favorite character in my book? Since Chinaberry Summer is written in first person from the perspective of Sissie Stevenson, readers might assume that she is my favorite character. However, without hesitation, I answered the student, “Grandpa Stevenson.”
Without a doubt, Grandpa Stevenson is the family patriarch who gently steers the course of the Stevenson clan. Even the extended family reunion takes place every year at his house. So a compass appears several times in the book: At the beginning, in the middle, and toward the end. Sissie sees that most of the adults in her family are good at giving directions to others, but they cannot always read the points of life’s compass very well for themselves. Then the compass turns up again at Christmas, a time when Sissie is struggling mightily with her school year while simultaneously trying to help Spud avoid bullies and find his own identity. And then there’s the last time, but you’ll need to read the book to find out about the final appearance of the compass. No spoilers!
Spud and Sissie naturally relate to Gemma and Grandpa Stevenson. Sissie loves them for being her kind, understanding grandparents who provide a safe place where she can be herself and find answers to her many questions. Although Spud is more distantly related, he loves Gemma and Grandpa Stevenson for being nonjudgmental and caring, which is the opposite compass point away from how he is treated at home and at school. But both Sissie and Spud, without consciously realizing it, migrate to Grandpa Stevenson because he appears to be the compass of the Stevenson family as he points out life’s directions to Spud and Sissie without judging them, without preaching at them, and without criticizing them or others. He simply answers life’s questions and models the kind of persons they need to aspire to be.
Character development can be a tricky business. I believe that in order for a writer to create an honest and memorable character, the writer must hold that character in the highest respect, even if that character is a flawed individual. And sometimes the writer has to step back and let her characters take her where they want to go. As a writer, I must listen to each character’s voice. I cannot force the characters, or they will be stunted and unrealistic caricatures. Their actions will not be true and believable.
So how do I say without hesitation that Grandpa Stevenson is my favorite character? I can’t imagine Chinaberry Summer without his presence. He adds heart and soul to the story. He is the storyteller, passing down the family’s history and stories to the next generations. Sometimes flowers and “critters” remind me of what he might say to Sissie. And sometimes, in a quiet place, if I start to think about Grandpa Stevenson, I have to wipe away tears.
It was a joy to develop his character and to write his words. He’s not a wealthy man, but he is rich in friends. He’s real, he’s believable, and he illustrates the powerful influence that a flawed, imperfect person can have over others so long as he presents himself as honest and nonjudgmental. One who loves people the way they are. One who sees the importance of answering a child’s questions with respect. One who takes the time to help his grandchildren find their true direction as they struggle to find their place in the world. And through his words and interactions with Sissie, Spud, and the other characters in Chinaberry Summer, Grandpa Stevenson proves that not only does he know how to read the points of life’s compass very well, he is the family’s moral compass.