Creating Maggie's "Other Half"
Eli never knelt before Maggie to propose.In fact, his proposal was every bit as unconventional as he is. But I needed an image, so this did the trick! Image from http://clipart-library.com/
This sounds like one of those “no duh” things, but when I created Maggie, the good-hearted, Methodist boarding house owner in the first novel of my Saint Maggie Series, I realized that her partner needed to be different. Among other things, his function would be to offer a different outlook on and approach to life. After all, if characters agreed on everything it would make for a pretty boring story.
So… if my lead character was going to be a nineteenth-century evangelical who strove to be true to her understanding of Jesus Christ, then perhaps she needed someone to balance that out. Enter Elijah Amos Smith.
Of course, I knew right off that it would not work to match Maggie with an atheist. An agnostic, a man who questions our assumptions about God but doesn’t deny God outright, would be more workable. In the 1800s, people who refused to accept the absolute authority of religion, choosing instead to make decisions based on reason and logic, were called freethinkers. That knowledge began to take shape in my mind as a man involved in the newspaper business. He needed to be a bit of a crusader, seeking the truth that lay behind events, rather than accepting information at face value or interpreting it through the lens of religion.
On the other hand, I also knew that Maggie would be familiar with Saint Paul’s advice to early Christians. She would have read the verse in the King James Version of the Bible: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Put in the more contemporary language of the Good News Translation, the verse reads: “Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers, for it cannot be done. How can right and wrong be partners? How can light and darkness live together?” While these words appear to be applicable to all relationships, it more frequently was (and still is) used to caution individuals contemplating marriage with someone outside their form of Christianity or outside Christianity altogether.
Therefore if Maggie entered into a romantic relationship with an agnostic, she would realize that she was waltzing into an “unequally yoked situation.” So, she needed to see past mere externals and into the heart of the matter. In fact, she needed to see into the heart of the man.
To that end, I asked myself what would enable Maggie to see Eli’s inner man? For one, his actions. Eli emerges therefore as a truth-seeker, whether it is relates to a news story or a life situation. He refuses to take things at face value. In addition, he is committed to making the world a better place and undertakes activities that Maggie interprets as bringing light to a dark world. For instance, Emily and Nate Johnson have invited both Maggie and Eli into their work with the Underground Railroad. Their invitation and Eli’s activity with the UGRR confirms to Maggie that he prefers justice and mercy for enslaved people over his personal safety.
Finally, Eli has been raised as a Quaker. The Society of Friends developed as a form of Christianity that sought guidance directly from the movement of the Spirit, rather than using the Bible as their ultimate form of guidance. Their worship also was/is different. There was/is no ordained clergy. Worship was/is conducted in silent meditation, broken only when someone is spiritually moved to speak. Contrast that to nineteenth-century Methodism, which sought its guidance from the Bible and a Methodist document called the Book of Discipline. Methodist corporate worship was led by ordained, paid clergy and made use of prayers, pastoral sermons, Bible readings, hymns, and testimony to enlighten and inspire believers.
And yet, Eli is flexible enough to attend Maggie’s church. Granted, he locates himself at the back near the entrance in solidarity with other “unconverted” males. He stands as a skeptic, but – and this is important – he is standing inside the church. And I think Eli’s presence communicates to Maggie that he is a man wrestling with faith.
All of the above was my original conception of Eli. However, I have discovered that a first book is just the beginning of a character’s development. Doing a series has helped me delve more deeply into the characters inhabiting Maggie’s world: Frankie, Lydia, Grandpa O’Reilly, Carson, her brother Samuel, and more. Perhaps it’s because I have served in ministry for around 27 years, but I find people and their motivations to be fascinating. No matter how humble or ordinary, they all have stories to tell, replete with successes, failures, challenges, as well as heartfelt, honest responses and “excellent excuses.”
I also believe fictional characters reveal themselves to an author in the process of writing. Or at least they do to me. Sometimes no matter how carefully I have designed my characters, they may do or “tell” me things that change their developmental trajectory. Eli is no exception. Over the course of the series, he gradually has revealed his history, his heartbreaks, and his questions.
Well, that’s enough for now. More to come next week on Eli and his continued development.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder