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Characters in search of a plot… and vice versa

“Genius is formed in quiet, character in the stream of human life.”

So proclaims Goethe in his play Torquato Tasso. Tasso was a tortured Italian poet who lived in the sixteenth century and influenced and inspired many subsequent writers and artists, including Spenser, Milton, van Dyck and Byron. He was a man so busy polishing his genius he failed to engage with “the stream of human life”. He was celebrated for centuries for his artistic melancholy (aka rudeness); more recently, it has been suggested he was bipolar.

Goethe himself gave us some of the most enduring characters in world literature, among them Tasso, sorrowful young Werther and haunted Dr Faustus. The portrayal of character clearly fascinated him.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Goethe dictum quoted at the beginning of this post. It’s my view that there can be nothing more absorbing for an author than the development of characters: when you set out to assemble the people who will populate your novel, you can let your imagination run riot, create your own friends, enemies, colleagues, display the distinctiveness of each one. You are their deus ex machina, their Svengali, their fate. When I was a teenager, magazines frequently published admonitory articles about caring for your skin and what would happen if you didn’t, but they always lightened up when it came to make-up. “Make-up is the fun part of every beauty regime,” I remember one sage journalist proclaiming. I maintain that inventing characters is the fun part of writing a novel.

Not every author would agree, however: some authors show minimal interest in developing their characters, regarding them essentially as adjuncts to the plot, the chess pieces that allow the game to proceed. This is especially true of certain crime and adventure writers. Agatha Christie is perhaps the most famous example: plot and denouement were what counted for her: the quirks and fancies of the participating actors – their characters – relevant and portrayed only, therefore, if they contributed to the one or the other. Ian Rankin is another famous writer who pays scant attention to character. Just these two examples illustrate that you can be a successful author without being too keen on character development.

But why deprive yourself of the pleasure? And why deprive your readers? If you will indulge me by thinking of your six top favourite novels, the ones that have become your perennial companions, I’d hazard a guess that it’s the characters you remember rather than the plots. Some characters are so well-rounded that you feel you know them: they seem to inhabit a life outside the written page. Jane Austen’s greatest heroines – Emma Woodhouse, say, or Elizabeth Bennet – feel to me like old friends. Some novels are entirely about the leading character and how s/he perceives and interacts with the world: Proust’s Marcel in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu must surely be the crowning example. Others throng with a huge cast of characters, some painted with the incisiveness of a cartoonist in a few felicitous words that stay with the reader for ever. There are legions of such characters in the novels of Charles Dickens.

I’ve said you can let your imagination run riot when you’re creating your characters, but you do also have to observe a few rules. First, and most important, is the need for verisimilitude: both within the novel you are working on and any sequels you may subsequently write, once you have introduced a character and described him or her, you can change them only in certain ways. As the book unfolds,  their weight can alter, but not the colour of their eyes; if they’re married you can’t unmarry them (unless you show them getting divorced); if they’re parents you can’t make them childless; and so on. P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote about the same set of characters over dozens of novels, religiously kept card indexes of the descriptions and actions of each one and added more notes every time they featured in a new book. His would be a tough act to imitate – always assuming you had the stamina to write so many books – but keeping an easily-locatable record of the main features of your characters is a good discipline to follow.

How you choose to handle your character’s more abstract characteristics is what will tax most your skills as a writer. It’s part of the author’s craft not to give away too soon too much of a character; and misleading the reader about a character’s true nature until well into the novel can both aid the plot and add enormously to the reader’s enjoyment. How much of Pride and Prejudice would have been lost if Elizabeth Bennet (and the reader) hadn’t gone along with the notion that Mr Darcy was an arrogant snob – and had Jane Austen not then, skilfully and credibly, demonstrated otherwise; how little would Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch have developed as a person if she had been right all along about Casaubon’s genius – and George Eliot had endorsed her adulation with no shred of irony?

Playfully deceiving the reader about character reaches its apogee in novels that feature the ‘unreliable narrator’. The protagonist, writing in the first person, who succeeds in befriending the reader right at the start and causing her or him to believe every word, is very gradually exposed – with a few tell-tale signals along the way – as menacing, corrupt or murderous. Agatha Christie herself, in a rare departure from her lack of interest in character, wrote such a novel in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – unsurprisingly, therefore, my favourite book of her entire oeuvre. My favourite recent addition to the unreliable narrator corpus is Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris. The title offers the first clue, if you know to look for it.

Is there a moral to this post? No. If you want to write novels with sketchy characters who possess the minimum of attributes to make your plot work and you are skilful enough to rely on action, plot and narrative instead, please do so. But also be aware that you may be missing out on a lot of fun.


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