Early in the development of my debut novel, Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale, I knew that I wanted to tell the story in the first person, from Tim’s point of view. I wanted to bring General Washington to the present, and I figured that I could show George’s personality and response to the 21st Century through his interactions with Tim.
Tim was George’s foil, a character whose purpose is to contrast with another character, often the protagonist, to bring out their differences. Think Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, or Bud Abbott playing straight man to Lou Costello.
Having Tim as the foil certainly worked out in many ways, but pretty soon, I began to think that I needed to provide him with a sidekick. As I wrote the early parts of the story, it became apparent that the very fact of George suddenly appearing in Tim’s life was astounding, to say the least, and Tim needed his own foil to reflect his astonishment. That’s how the character LaMatthew Johnson came to be. Tim and Matt could have their own private conversations about George, particularly in the early stages of the narrative, where they weren’t sure if they believed his story.
That wasn’t all. As I deepened my research into Washington as a slave owner, I realized that I needed people of color in my story. So Matt is mixed race, descended on his father’s side from enslaved people in the South (the Johnsons), and on his mother’s side from Jews fleeing the Nazis (the Lefkowitches).
From their first meeting, Matt confronts George about his role as owner of many enslaved people, forcing him to acknowledge that slavery is cruel, evil, and immoral. These dialogues elevate Matt’s role in the story from mere sidekick duty. He never gives George a break about slavery, even rejecting the notion Washington was just “a product of his time.”
As I write this, it’s Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt, and I wonder, “was Pharaoh just a product of his time?”
Despite their differences, George and LaMatthew do learn to trust and admire each other. Matt, whose role at first was to help Tim understand and explain George’s momentous presence among them, later takes decisive and risky action to defend George during a surprise ambush. Originally intended as a mere sidekick, Matt thus forces his way into becoming a principal character.