Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write X

The charm of a character in fiction is not achieved directly. It is useless to try to describe it in a lift of the shoulder or the twinkle of an eye. For so important an ingredient your reader will only take the word of another trusted character, and only then, if that second character has nothing to gain by it.

Tolstoy, in War and Peace, illustrates Natasha’s childlike spontaneity and creative energy by having her light up the lives of Pierre and Prince Andrew, Denissov, and Maria Dimitrievna, and the Little Uncle. Because he gives her the ability to do this we, the readers, are also enchanted and charmed by her.

Jane Austen uses the same method with Emma Woodhouse. In the opening chapter we already know that she has had rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself. It is not at all certain that she will win us over. We are presented with a character in perfect health, strong and resilient and headstrong, someone who knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. Despite her youth she is the natural first lady of Highbury society. She will always be busy and happy and she has, constantly, to think of the happiness of others. She is the obvious matchmaker between Harriet Smith and Mr Elton. But does Mr Elton agree?

‘Miss Smith! – I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence – . . . Miss Smith, indeed! – Oh! Miss Woodhouse! who can think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near!’

And we come to suspect another Emma Woodhouse. We perceive Emma’s charm through the reflections of those around her, through Harriet and, of course, through the eyes of Mr Knightley.

One Response to “Learning to Write X”

  1. That’s pretty neat. I guess you can extend the technique beyond charm to give a well-rounded credibility -or any other attributes you care to chose – to your character through the eyes of others. Hm. Lots to think about in this post. Thanks.

    jb says: Hi Bill, Lots of novelists, published and unpublished, never seem to learn this lesson. I think it was V.S. Pritchett who underlined it in the following quote: One of the reasons why bad novels are bad is not that the characters do not live, but that they do not live with one another.