Time and again and again I see books, films and television programmes, stories, where the characters just don’t have any life to them. They are flat, uninteresting, two dimensional some people would call them. Writing good character is hard, there’s no denying that. Not only do you have to flesh them out and give them backstory but you’ve also got to figure out how their brain actually works and how they’re going to react to the other characters and what is going on around them. In other words, they have to live. They have to become more human than it ought to be possible for a fictional being to be. It is so easy to go wrong, and even the tiniest slip can turn a story into a disaster.
It is imperative that a writer gets their characters right. Without at least one good, fleshed out character (or series of them) to take the reader by the hand and guide them through the story all the rest is practically worthless. You might as well just not bother. You can have the best plot in the world, the most readable writing style, but if the characters aren’t there, aren’t written right, you’ve lost the game. The plot and the style won’t matter.
It’s hard to disagree that one of the undisputed masters of writing character was Charles Dickens. Whilst his plots may be all over the place and untidy, often relying on a series of coincidences to move themselves along, a huge proportion of his characters were as well written as any in the history of literature. He was not always successful, his main protagonists are often the least interesting of his characters (David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby…), but he always managed to create at least one who stuck in the memory. Undoubtedly, this reached its peak with Great Expectations, which contains a whole slew of well written characters.
We begin with Pip, who like most Dickens protagonists is the least interesting character in the book, though he is considerably better fleshed out than David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby, but then we’re introduced to a whole slew of well-drawn, forever memorable characters.
The first of these, looming out from behind the gravestones of a churchyard, is Abel Magwitch, the convict. The first thing we know about him is his voice calling out ‘hold your noise,’ before he emerges into view, as though some kind of fiend from beyond the grave and threatens to slit Pip’s throat. In two sentences, before we even know who this man is or what he looks like, Dickens has told us practically everything we need to know about the character. We know straight away, before we even know he’s a convict, that Magwitch is not a nice man, he’s someone to be afraid of. Dickens goes on, in small chunks, to reveal who this character is. He does not do it directly either. He does it through dialogue and hints in the description, such as with the manacle on his leg, allowing the reader to work out who he is for themselves. He never directly mentions, for example, the fact that Magwitch is a convict. He just lets us, the reader, assume.
What Dickens also does brilliantly, with Magwitch, is to draw his character through his actions and his interactions with Pip. Magwitch shakes Pip, threatens him, turns him upside down. And Pip is scared. He’s terrified into stealing a bit of pie and a file. For the first few chapters of the book Magwitch has Pip metaphorically wetting his pants for the first few chapters of the novel.
The other stand-out character from Great Expectations is Miss Havisham and Dickens again demonstrates his mastery of character by cementing her in the reader’s imagination before she even speaks or even moves. He does it purely through description, describing this strange, wraith like lady in a withered old wedding dress. He cements this impression with the subsequent dialogue, Miss Havisham asking Pip if he’s ‘afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since before (he) was born.’ In the space of a few paragraphs Dickens creates one of the most memorable characters in his entire cannon. Even if he had left her there, never done anything else with the character, she would still be one of his most memorable. The image is so creepy, so sinister, that it sticks with us long after the book has been returned to the shelf.
In almost all of his novels, Dickens consistently made sure his characters were the best they could be. For all his faults, he knew how to write character. His knowledge shows through in the final results, in Havisham and Magwitch.
Of course, with both, he expands and fleshes out the characters as the novel progresses on, even going so far as to subvert our initial impression of Magwitch by revealing him not to be such a vicious criminal after all. He is, in fact, Pip’s mysterious benefactor. Miss Havisham, meanwhile, turns out to be a vicious old crone who comes to regret what she has done. In both cases Dickens allows the characters to alter, to develop. He allows the events of the novel to shape and influence them, to change them. He doesn’t just leave them as a frightening convict and a withered woman in a wedding dress.
Dickens, without a doubt, was indeed a master of character. Even almost two hundred years after the publication of his first novel (The Pickwick Papers) his characters still litter our pop cultural landscape. They survive because they are so well written, because they are good characters. All writers can learn from Dickens, learn from how he writes his characters and introduces them.
The first impression of a character is of vital importance and, as we have seen, Dickens does it perfectly with both Magwitch and Havisham. In both cases he cements the character within the first few sentences. Havisham and Magwitch make a big and memorable entrance, something which other writers should make a note of. Not every character can make an entrance of course, but for key individuals it should be a priority. They need to burst through the doors like a dolled up diva, immediately grabbing the reader’s attention.
There must also be subtlety there, however. Don’t outright say ‘here is a convict,’ insinuate, like Dickens did with Magwitch. Use the dialogue and the actions and the surroundings to tell the reader everything they need to know. Use the way characters react to them and they way they react to other characters to tell the reader who they are.
The final thing is don’t leave characters the way you introduce them. Let them develop, let them change, and in a way that is a reaction to the story and the plot rather than in some cack-handed muddle. It can’t be some random leap, it has to make sense. However fantastical the rest of the book may be, the progression of the characters has to be logical and realistic. It has to be within the context of who they are. Miss Havisham’s redemption, for example, comes about as a natural reaction to Estella marrying Drummle. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, it is logical. It is completely plausible that this would happen.
To see an example of where this can go wrong we must look outside Dickens, to Hannibal by Thomas Harris. Clarice Starling is a fine example of a strong, independent female character who becomes fascinated by this strange, cannibal killer. At the end of the book Harris undoes all his good work in writing character by having Lecter drug Starling so that she runs off into the sunset with him, at which point (once the drugs have worn off) she surrenders completely and the two live happily ever after. Whilst it’s just about in character for Lecter to want to do something like that to Starling, it’s not in Starling’s character to want to go off with him. It is not a logical development. Why would she do that? It’s not consistent with her character. The Clarice we have come to know isn’t going to run off with anybody, not even the man she has become so fascinated with. The drugging, meanwhile, strips Starling of her agency, taking away the idea that she is a strong and independent woman. Her whole character, in a word, is destroyed by this development.
The amount of people on the internet who can be found defending this ending is demonstrative that there are an awful lot of people who don’t understand character or how character should work. It extends, as well, to a lot of writers. If you don’t understand character how can you ever hope to write a readable book? You can’t. Without an understanding of character you end up with situations where the likes of Clarice Starling are stripped of their agency and dismantled. Your entire work can fall apart because of a slip up like that. It is a mistake that no intelligent, experienced writer should ever make.
We can learn a lot from Charles Dickens in the way that he uses and writes character. In the likes of Magwitch and Havisham he demonstrates how to do it- Having them enter the stage in a memorable way, cementing them in the audience imagination. He shows us who they are in their reactions to other characters and how characters react to them. He doesn’t write things in big, red letters. We have to work them out for ourselves. Unfortunately, Dickens isn’t seen as being relevant to contemporary literature and so is not held up as the example he should be. Most people agree that he wrote fantastic characters, but he is no longer emulated or learned from. Instead people are more likely to look to the likes of Thomas Harris who, whilst writing a pair of intriguing characters, still placed them into a ham-fisted, illogical ending which stripped one of the character of their agency. Yes, Dickens was capable of the same- David Copperfield ending up with Agnes at the end came a bit left of field and his revised ending for Great Expectations doesn’t work for Pip and Estella- but much of the time he was remarkably consistent. He wrote his characters well and we ought still to be looking to him for guidance.
Pip meets Magwitch- Image from Victorianweb.org