A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.
Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.
In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.
Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.
Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.
With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.
There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.
Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.
P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.
I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.
I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides. Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.
Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.
They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.
Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.
Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.
To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.
The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.
She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.
The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.
He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.
Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.
So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.
Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.
That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.
Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’
Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’