As I see it, there’s only two problems with complex characters , good and bad: one is that they take so much work to envisage and the other is that, portaying them adequately will necessarily involve a bit more of a word count – and in this age of hurry where every minute is counted, that may be resented by readers.
To name only two examples from classic literature – Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony is intriguing, and so is Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Both combine admirable qualities with very inadmirable ones, a capacity for feeling, for magnanimity, mixed with an equal capacity for cold indifference.
I am particularly fascinated by the depiction of the wicked Robert Lovelace by Samuel Richardson. He is meant, of course, to be an arch-villain. I think, like some writers today, Richardson was dismayed, even shocked, when he found that too many readers – particularly women – found Lovelace so charming that they were prepared to fall over backwards and make excuses for the rape and even apportioned some of the blame to Clarissa herself.
I might not agree about many things with Richardson – as much an arch patriarch in his own way as the rakish Lovelace – but I do about this; there’s never any excuse for rape.
Still, I can see how the readership became fascinated by Lovelace. His letters do make fascinating reading; witty and debonair, his fiendish delight in his own machinations is often amusing. Sometimes the reader has to laugh along with him. He manipulates others as if they were, in his own words, ‘just so many puppets dancing on my wires’,
This man is subtle and conniving; he’s got a flashy charm, and he’s clever enough to appear ingenuous; in fact, he’s always declaring how ingenuous he is and how he gets carried away by his natural ‘warmth of temper’ (or words to that effect). After a time, the astute and sharp-tongued Anna Howe begins to see through him; Clarissa, so honourable herself that she finds it hard to discern underhand, manipulative behaviour in others, takes longer. Without Ms Howe’s letters, she would soon be overwhelmed by Lovelace’s connivances and her own over fine moral scruples.
A lot of this is purely calculated; he has anger fits when he wishes to intimidate – he has something of the bully in him, as he can keep the said passions in check as well as anybody when he chooses to.
This is a point that ought to be bourne in mind in view of his later rape of the unlucky Clarissa, who has allowed herself to be drawn in by him and thrown into his protection, believing in his honour: if Lovelace has any honour, he has none towards women. They are to pay forever for his earlier betrayal by his first love. This is insane; Lovelace’s egotism and misogyny often border on the deranged.
This calculating rogue, who defines himself as ‘as michevous as a monkey’ who ‘would have been a rogue, had I been a ploughboy’ loves bribery and corruption; he’s got a conniving tool in the hostile Harlowe’s manservant, his double agent Leman (wonderful name; I think it means ‘lover’ in old English) . He spins a complicated web to surround his victim, because he likes to make a woman fall into his trap, so he can look down at her and say: – ‘Aha, my charmer! How came you there?’ (Lovelace is often rather a stagey sort of villain: I believe he was based n the character Lothario in the play ‘The Fair Penitent’ and he often has the speech patterns and mannerisms of this stage villain).
This is the more fascinating, because the puritanical, diligent Samuel Richardson obviously had hidden depths in his psyche – we all have, of course, but rarely is there such a huge divide between the character depicted and the superficial personality of the writer. Richardson’s imagination must have been incredibly fertile, and I would love to hear what a post Freudian analysis of his psyche would make of his apparent sexual repressions.
Did Richardson’s model hero, Sir Charles Grandison, lock himself in his closet, concoct some noxious brew, and turn into Robert Lovelace on the sly? I wouldn’t put it past him at all. I never trust these too-good-to-be-true types.
Overall, the challenge of a creating a complex character, particularly a complex villain, or a complex anti-hero, is a tempting one for any writer. I’m tempted to delve further into it myself in due course.
My own Émile Dubois is a fairly complex character. He is apparently straightforward, and he doesn’t usually tell people lies (apart from the forces of law and order, that is) . His intentions towards Sophie are honourable and his courtship of her straightforward until he mistakenly believes that she is lying to him.
Still, neither does it always suit him to tell people quite the whole truth. He appears to be open-hearted – but he can outwit both the Committee of Public Safety over in Paris, living under an assumed identity for upwards of three years – and he is fully able to second guess the underhand machinations of Goronwy Kenrick. Bribing Kenrick’s servant comes as second nature to him, just as it does to Kenrick. This was all part of the eighteenth century aristocratic mentality, of course, particularly of those who had been connected with that hotbed of conspiracy Versailles.
This slightly tricky quality, demonstrated by his skill at chess, is lurking in readiness to come to the surface when he starts to turn into a monster. One part of him always remains as a tender lover, but another, the increasingly prominent monstrous side, revels in surrounding Sophie and driving into a corner just as he does in a chess game.
Émile, however, is – as his human self - generally a nice enough scoundrel despite this slight trickiness in his make up; he is extremely gallant to women generally, and has a sense of honour, being almost fanatically loyal to his friends. He is also shown – I’d like to emphasize here - as disgusted by the idea of rape.
Reading Clarissa has certainly tempted me to write about an out-and -out scoundrel without moral scruples – and just like Richardson, I won’t dream of letting him off; he’ll get the come uppance he deserves at the end.