Y’all, I am beyond excited to dive into today’s “What I’ve Learned About Storytelling” episode because we’ll be discussing one of my all-time favorite books that I just gave a much-needed reread.
Exposing the racial injustice in 1960s Mississippi through the eyes of both African American maids and a white woman who are fed up with the Jim Crow laws that once dictated life in Jackson and the American South, The Help is not only a modern classic but a piece of literature as important to American history as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
So, what has The Help taught me about storytelling?
Lesson 1: Historical Fiction Thrives on Historical Accuracy
Yeah, we’re on the first lesson and you’re already like “well duh, Allyson. Of course a HisFic novel should be historically accurate.” But alas, my friends. There’s more to this than meets the eye.
I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I have a sweet spot for the mid-20th century for some oddball reason. Maybe because it was before the tech boom, but who knows.
Anyway, whenever I do choose to pick up a historical novel, I always go in hoping it will teach me more about the time period while being entertaining. In my experience, I’ve only found a handful of novels that do both well. Most lean more toward being set in a time period but not using the setting to its full advantage, meaning the same plot could have taken place in modern times and would have had a similar outcome. Others, well, others are basically labeled historical fiction but read the same way a history textbook does.
The Happy Medium Between Being Historically Accurate and Entertaining
Without a shadow of a doubt, The Help flawlessly combines the true history of the 1960s south while executing the story through some of the most complex and interesting characters I’ve ever come across in fiction. How did the author, Kathryn Stockett, go about doing this?
First things first, the author lived the story she wrote. She grew up with a black maid, and the novel reflected her experiences in a fictional way. Living in the time period, she was able to witness the history in the making for what it was and therefore gives an accurate account of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Now, y’all are probably thinking “well, I want to write a novel about life in the 1800s and obviously I wasn’t born then.” Hold on, I’m getting to that.
Stockett not only writes what she knows in The Help, but the events rely heavily on real-life events that occurred during the Civil Rights movement, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the term of Ross Barnett as Governor of Mississippi, and mentions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. The consequences of these events, especially the assassination of Evers, of which characters Aibileen and Minny had met his wife, helped propel the conflict in the novel and determined whether or not the maids were willing to help Skeeter write the truth about how the maids were treated. Skeeter is also personally affected by her frenemy, Hilly Holbrook’s, blind allegiance to Ross Barnett’s blatantly racist agenda.
There’s an old saying that says “life imitates art”, but in the case of The Help, the influences of life and art commingle to create a fictional story that screams real-life truths from the rooftops.
Lesson 2: Creating Unique Character Arcs for Alternative POVs
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of swapping POVs in a story, unless it’s between two characters. Larger casts of POVs usually confuses me and some of the characters’ voices end up sounding similar. Ironically, The Help became one of my all-time favorite books because of the way the author was able to create three truly spectacular main characters and give each of them fears, misbeliefs, and desires of their own.
Aibileen’s Character Arc Basics:
Aibileen Clark is the first character readers are introduced to, a middle-aged maid who works for the Leefolts. Aibileen reflects on how her son, Treelore, was killed and dumped at the local hospital, and Aibileen’s initial fear and misbelief are introduced. Aibileen then says that Treelore was working on a Civil Rights book before he died, and is concerned that his words will die with him. She admits that Treelore inherited his love of writing from her, and that she writes down her prayers each night. Cue her underlying desire.
Fear: Racial injustice in the American South will never cease to exist.
Misbelief: As a black woman, Aibileen doesn’t have the ability to voice her opinion on racial injustice and make a change.
Desire: Make a difference with her writing.
Minny’s Character Arc Basics:
Next, readers are introduced to Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s younger and perpetually sassy best friend who used to work for the antagonist, Hilly Holbrook’s, mother Mrs. Walters. Minny’s story begins as she’s looking for a new maid job after being fired from her job at Mrs. Walter’s by Hilly. Minny admits that she did something that was Terrible Awful to Hilly and therefore believes she’ll never find another job in Jackson. Because of this, Minny is terrified of what will happen when her abusive husband, Leroy, finds out she’s unemployed. Minny is eventually able to find employment with Celia Foote, the local “white trash” woman who ended up marrying Hilly’s well-to-do ex-boyfriend who doesn’t live by the societal norm of racism.
Fear: Hilly’s lies about Minny will result in her never keeping a job in Jackson, Mississippi. The consequence is receiving further abuse from her husband.
Misbelief: Due to her experience with Hilly, she believes all white ladies in Jackson, Mississippi are racist and cannot be trusted.
Desire: (Underlying, not explicitly said) To have the courage to stand up against racism and her abusive husband and live a life of freedom.
Skeeter’s Character Arc Basics:
Finally, readers are introduced to Skeeter Pheelan, a recent graduate from Ole Miss who grew up with Hilly Holbrook and the high society members of Jackson. Skeeter is vastly different from other girls her age, as she regards her childhood maid, Constantine, as the woman who raised her rather than just the black maid. Her own mother just wants Skeeter to fit in with the other girls and disapproves of Skeeter’s desires to write and her empathy for African Americans. Upon Skeeter’s return to Jackson after graduation, she finds that Constantine is no longer employed with her family and everyone is too scared to tell her the truth as to why. Skeeter has dreams of becoming a journalist or novelist, so she scores a job writing the cleaning advice column at The Jackson Journal.
Fear: She will be unable to write the book of her heart due to the legal and social repercussions of being involved in the Civil Rights movement.
Misbelief: She will never find acceptance because her beliefs are different than the culture she grew up in.
Desire: To write something that will positively affect the lives of others.
As you can see, though each of these three characters have different fears, misbeliefs, and desires that create their own individual character ars, these same qualities are the reasons Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter are able to become friends and produce the overall story arc of writing the book together. In short, for each swapping POV, each character needs their own story arc to take place where they transform on their own. In turn, the progression of each character arc drives the story as a whole forward.
Lesson 3: How to Use Vernacular Without Depicting Ignorance
The use of vernacular is a tough subject to touch on, and I hope I do not unintentionally offend anyone by addressing this. Personally, I feel The Help did a great job on depicting speech patterns while not making the characters seem ignorant, and would like to explain my reasoning.
As a woman from the southern United States, I have come across a lot of poorly written books, TV shows, and movies where the Southern characters are portrayed as downright stupid. For fans of SpongeBob SquarePants, do y’all remember the episode where SpongeBob does a comedy routine about his Texan friend, Sandy Cheeks? That’s exactly how I feel when watching how roughly 90% of media portrays people from the south. More or less because they don’t even get the vernacular, or the delivery, correct.
I can only imagine how people of other ethnicities feel when their vernacular is portrayed in certain ways by the media. The media portrays cultures in stereotypical ways and does a poor job of showing how characters can have accents and defy the stereotypes that society places on those cultures.
I can personally attest that my writing voice and my verbal voice are two entirely different things. From my writing, can you tell that I’m from eastern North Carolina? Can you tell that I’m from a rural town?
No, but if you actually heard me talking, you could. Heck, I’ve heard that my county has its own unique dialect. And it ain’t grammatically correct or full of beautiful prose. It’s choppy. It’s full of slang. It’s nearly complete 180 from how I write.
The Help masters the fact that characters can speak one way and write another, and Aibileen is the perfect example. Though Stockett depicts Aibileen’s personal voice as using grammatically incorrect vernacular, such as “sho nuff”, it is revealed toward the end of the book that the chapter Aibileen wrote herself for the book needed the least amount of edits as compared to Skeeter’s, who graduated with a journalism degree from Ole Miss. This small detail proves to the readers that Aibileen is intelligent even though her verbal speech isn’t “correct” by grammatical standards.
In contrast, though Hilly Holbrook thinks she is an intelligent speaker and holds the position as the League President, her actions prove that she is ignorant and ill-tempered, a complete contrast from how she presents herself in her public speeches.
By adding in details that depict intelligence of those who use southern speech or vernacular, The Help proves that just because characters voices are written in vernacular, it doesn’t mean the character is unintelligent. It just depicts speech patterns and aids the overall method of making the characters more relatable.
The Help has taught me the following about storytelling:
- Lesson 1: Historical Fiction Thrives on Historical Accuracy
- Lesson 2: Creating Unique Character Arcs for Alternative POVs
- Lesson 3: How to Use Vernacular Without Depicting Ignorance
Talk to Me, Arrowheads!
Have you read The Help? What other lessons has the book taught you about storytelling? Let me know in the comments!
Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.