On developing characters: Characters must become real people. They exist in a real world, and for me, the real world is Man in Nature.
by Jack Hammond Jr
Writing the Story
The birth of my stories begins with a single image that grows in my imagination. When I put the story on paper, it is a living part of my thinking. The story begins to tell itself. I am simply the messenger using characters, conflicts, imagery and dialogue to weave a story from that image. If I am successful, the story breathes, takes on a life of its own. After The Last Hanging in Scots Bend, I began three very different stories; before long, one story began to live and tell itself. That story is my next novel.
Plot does not drive my writing. I don’t do plot outlines, because I never know where the story is going. In my first novel, Stash Harris faces a sentence of hanging for the revenge murder of two men, but he is so likeable, the problem was how to save him. How to save Stash became conflict and complication for the sheriff, his uncle. In the historical story, the Stash character escaped to Virginia. It seemed too weak for fiction, so my own conflict was hang Stash in spite of how likeable he was, or, find a way to save him. Happily, the solution revealed itself to me. From there, it was a simple puzzle.
In the same way that good figurative language and detail allow every reader to develop a personal image of the setting, not using direct characterization allows every reader to create a personal image of the characters. Indirect characterization is key for me. Each reader should have a visceral connection to the characters. I prefer multiple first person narration for that reason. Each character’s own words should connect them with the reader.
Characters must become real people. They exist in a real world, and for me, the real world is Man in Nature. I write detail that attempts to place characters firmly in the natural world. The sheriff’s first words in the novel are an example:
“I am up to watch the sunrise every morning. Heavy rain clouds lumber out of the southwest, covering the sky, leaving a thin slice of blue along the eastern horizon, allowing the sun’s first rays to weave into the cloud bottoms. A light, steady rain is falling, a rain that promises more. Seven evening grosbeaks cross the yard in front of me, lighting in the willow oak, chittering their antediluvian song to the rain. They wait for the scattering of oats, rye, and sorghum I sow into the yard every morning, and when I reach into the grain barrel, they flash and whirl about the yard excitedly.”
My goal is to cement a character firmly in the natural world. I want the reader connected to the character as someone who is as real as they are themselves.
I don’t like revisionist fiction. I am a realist. I want my readers to ride an emotional roller coaster with the characters. I want accurate historical context in my stories, so the story must be both real and accurate even if the reality of a particular place and time was extremely difficult. When I read my work in public, I have to stay away from some passages because of my own emotional connection. If I am good enough as a writer, every reader will find passages like that in my work. That is the goal.
Jack Hammond Jr. is a lifelong resident of South Carolina, growing up during the Cold War and the Civil Rights era. He holds a BA in English from Coker College and an MBA from Wingate University. After a long career managing municipal and county utilities, Hammond left the business world and began teaching high school English. Teaching reignited his love for literature and writing. The Last Hanging in Scots Bend is his first novel. It draws historical images and individuals from the Reconstruction era into the intensely personal drama of two families locked in a bitter generational conflict. It is an examination of man’s place in the natural world, the randomness of fate, and man’s relationship to God.