Mining for Heart: Listen to Your Characters

In previous guest posts, other authors have written that the heart of the story is in the characters and their relationships. I agree. But when writing about real people from history using limited resources, it’s often a challenge to get to know them.

When I’m digging for what makes an historical figure tick, I look at their actions. Character is always revealed by what a person does. But when trying to identify their philosophy or motivation, what pushes them forward and inspires their actions, I go after what they’ve said. And often, this is where I find the heart.

BF NW tea
art copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Baddeley

In an earlier post about the inspiration for AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, I shared the quote by  Ben Franklin that struck me like a bolt of lightening: “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell.” This totally made sense, connected to kids, and showed typical Franklin wit and humor. This was the heart of my story! It usually isn’t this easy. I was totally lucky to find these words in the article that caught my initial interest. But I needed this blatant bonk on the head to teach me this lesson: listen to the character’s words! Dig for the character’s words!

Since Ben was a writer, we have a treasure trove of his quotations. Here are some that gave me insight into his character and connected to the events in the story:

Energy and persistence conquer all things.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.

When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.

Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.

You may delay, but time will not.

I have never entered into any controversy in defense of my opinions; I leave them to take their chance in the world. ..

A few quotes directly from his interaction with Noah and their spelling revolution…

The true question then is…whether the conveniences will not on the whole, be greater than the inconveniences.

…we might perfectly get over it in a week’s time…

The present bad spelling is only bad because contrary to the present bad rules. 

From Franklin’s own words, you can get an understanding of his attitude and motivation, his pleasant and practical nature.

But what about Noah Webster, a lesser known historical figure? What made him tick? Here are some of his words that helped me get to know him.

His attitude is obvious.

…they [people who mispronounce words] offend the ear and embarrass the language…

The revolution of America is yet incomplete…

General Washington has expressed the warmest wishes for the success of my undertakings.

…crush all opposition

Sometime or other it must be done.

Now is the time, and this the country”  

He was a natural salesman…

This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.

…a column in each newspaper, printed in the new spelling, would in six months, familiarize…show advantages…remove objections…

…it would assist foreigners and our own children…

 Sometimes an argumentative intellectual…

“If therefore an identity of sound, even in rapid speaking, produces no inconvenience, how much less would an identity of spelling, when the eye would have the leisure to survey the construction?

After a while, Noah started to sound like Ben…

It would, in that case, be as difficult to spell wrong, as it is now to spell right.

In the end – he accepted Ben’s philosophy and gave in to the public he couldn’t control. (Yes! Character growth!)

“Our language is indeed pronounced very differently than the spelling; this is an inconvenience we regret, but cannot remedy. 

You can see that the quotes above provide a real sense of these individuals. This is why editors say to use quotations. In the final editorial stage of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, it was clear there just wasn’t room for all the quotes we wanted to include. Even so, the impact of both Ben’s and Noah’s words on the story was evident.

The characters’ words were essential to writing the story. They allow you to get past a source’s author and go directly inside the character’s head. And that one quote in particular was my key to unlocking the story. In that single quote of Franklin’s, we see the fickleness, irony, and hint of absurdity that impacted tone and direction.

Ben and Noah gave me one more priceless gift. In their communication about spelling reform, both Ben and Noah frequently used the word “inconvenient,” and, in doing so, handed me the title. (For any of you that struggle with titles as much as I do, you understand how fortuitous this was! And, of course, I’m indebted to Al Gore, too!)

As I’ve pursued research for other stories, digging into quotations has helped me find the heart, not only of the characters, but also of the story.

I’d written LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT: ELIZABETH JENNINGS FIGHTS FOR STREETCAR RIGHTS (Calkins Creek, 2020) before I got the head bonk about listening to characters from AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET.  In looking back at this manuscript, it wasn’t one line, but the entirety of Lizzie’s written statement of the streetcar incident that helped me find her story.

With “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF AN ORDINARY MAN AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY NOSE (Calkins Creek, 2020), there were only two articles and one chapter of a book on James Kelly. I had to dig out every morsel I could find. His matter-of -fact, almost brusque responses, along with his humor, gave me a sense of his character. But in reporting what Kelly said about the men he trained, the author/interviewer provided a glimpse into Kelly’s motivation, though only a couple words are written as direct speech.

He [Kelly] says it takes at least a year before you can trust a new man on the job, and complains that most new men aren’t interested enough, so you can’t have confidence in them…”Good men, all of them, but—” There the sentence trails off, but the inference is clear. To these men sniffing is merely a job. (The world beneath the city, p. 114) 

There’s one more great goldmine example where a quote provided the story’s essence and focus. But since that book hasn’t been announced yet, I’ll have to hold that one back.

Dig for your character’s words. Expand your search into related themes. Eventually, you’ll find that one quote, that special point of view, those few words that nail down the heart of your story.

Every manuscript, even if it goes nowhere, teaches me multiple lessons. Thank you, Ben Franklin, for hitting me in the heart with your words and teaching me to REALLY listen to the characters. It just goes to show you, historical characters have a lot to share—for writers and readers!


A couple words of caution on quotations…

Many famous historical figures, such as Ben Franklin, are frequently misquoted. Check your sources and be sure that attributed quotations are correct. (Thanks to Barb Rosenstock for the heads up!)

Also, meanings of words change over time. Finding the meaning of a word at the time it was spoken provides a better understanding. For example, when I learned that “science” formerly also meant “all knowledge,” a somewhat obscure quote became much clearer. The manuscript that inspired this consideration is still under construction….  


11 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: Listen to Your Characters

    1. Since the initial quote I saw from BF was so profound in how it impacted the telling of the story, now I expect…hope…long…to find that for other manuscripts. In a way, I think it’s looking for an encapsulated way of saying what I’m vaguely thinking but can’t express. Always better in the character’s words! Glad you found the post helpful!!


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