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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XIX

All fictional characters are not drawn in the same way. The writer has to decide if the person he is about to represent is to be a full character or merely an embodied trait. The difference between these two presentations lies in the way in which the reader responds to them.

Everyone responds differently to a full character. In life, and in fiction. This is because, staying with fiction, the reader forms a relationship, an acquaintance with that character and is left with the freedom to judge the character. You may love Huck Finn or you may find him appalling. All the possible reactions between those extremes are possible, and only possible because he is a fully drawn character. Mark Twain shows us just enough so that we can make an individual evaluation of Huckleberry out of our own experience and temperament.

When an embodied trait is presented in a character, the reader is left with little freedom to judge. Differences of feeling between readers are minimized, often obliterated altogether. If, as a writer, you decide that all readers must feel the same way about one of your characters, it is necessary to give them only what must accomplish your purpose. And, obviously, this means that you cannot give them a fully-rounded character.

Fagin, the ‘kidsman’ in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, is a personified trait rather than a character. Presumably there are social and psychological reasons why Fagin corrupts innocent children and teaches them to steal, but Dickens does not analyse these causes. Perhaps Fagin experiences moments of conscience or regret for his activities, but Dickens does not go there either. He is not dealing with a person, but only a trait which has to haunt the pages of his novel.

He wants us to feel righteous and indignant revulsion for the character of Fagin, and he needs that feeling to be unanimous amongst his readers. To achieve that he has to bury, almost completely, any hint of the character’s humanity.

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