Creating Ellen: Her Fictional Function
Last week, I talked about Ellen, a seemingly minor character in my historical novel, The Lies That Bind, and how readers have responded to her. Minor? You be the judge.
In the novel’s initial outline, I referred to Ellen merely as “granddaughter,” who is present when Durksen Hurst registers a deed for land with her grandfather at his store where the hamlet’s records are kept. (The land is where Durk and his partners - former slaves - planned to build their egalitarian plantation.)
Yet somehow, as I began developing that scene, my fingers seemed to take over, and the “store” became a hapless business establishment named the Honor Store; the “grandfather” became the fanatical fundamentalist Senior Deacon; and the “granddaughter” grew into mousy, unworldly, seventeen-year-old Ellen. I had fun writing it, and I think that’s why readers have fun reading it!
Although Ellen only appears a few times, she adds a fresh and wholly unexpected tone to the otherwise jaundiced tale. Is it innocence? idealism? faith? Her appearances offer belly-laugh humor that breaks from the rest of the story’s heartrending dramatic tension and, thus, serves an important emotional component to the book’s overall theatrics. Just as importantly, Ellen’s actions near the end of the book give the reader a great deal to think about. Indeed, such a perspective calls into question all of the book’s themes, the other characters’ motivations, and the very foundational assumptions of the antebellum South. That’s a lot for an ancillary character!
She Cannot Tell a Lie
In the novel, all the main characters develop complex schemes in order to survive. Each lives a lie—and often tells lies. Ellen, on the other hand, cannot lie. Her first brief appearance so intrigued me that I decided she, not her grandfather, would have the job, the privilege, of providing manumission papers to Durk in his attempt to free his partners. After this single act, Ellen comes to believe she is being guided by God to free all of the town’s slaves. Suddenly, Ellen has her own personal crusade—and a place in the story as a true heroine!
Ellen’s Creative Source
What literary tradition inspired my creation of Ellen and the impractical Honor Store? If you’ve read Shakespeare, you’ve probably noted that his dramatic works often have humorous, parallel characters and subplots.
Like Shakespeare’s clownish minor characters, Ellen and her grandfather have motivations far different from everyone else in the story. The Honor Store is not founded on profit, but on other (religious) ideals: charity, neighborliness, etc. For that reason, we know the Honor Store could not survive in the real world, which is what makes it funny to modern-day thinking.
Likewise, Ellen’s motivation is barely tangential—if at all—to practicality. Therefore, in The Lies That Bind’s world of schemers and plotters, Ellen’s purity of thought stands out. And that bright point of view contrasts with the rest of the novel’s dark perspective. The question then becomes, who is right? The archaic Ellen, who lives deeply in ancient beliefs, or the other characters who live in fear and uncertainty? Maybe that idealism, that purity elevates Ellen beyond minor character status. You, the reader, will have to decide that for yourself.