Character (part 2)

Authors may also like to use the environment in which a character is ‘found’ or placed as an indirect – but very effective – way of bringing a character to life. The environment which one lives in or chooses is particularly important (e.g. a bedroom, or house, or street, or area where that person has chosen to live). The following example very clearly aims to tell us something about Mr. James Duffy, one of James Joyce’s Dubliners:

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious. He lived in an old sombre house and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built. The lofty walls of his uncarpeted room were free from pictures. He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table in which lay a double desk. A bookcase had been made in an alcove by means of shelves of white wood. The bed was clothed with white bed-clothes and a black and scarlet rug covered the foot. A little hand-mirror hung above the washstand and during the day a white-shaded lamp stood as the sole ornament of the mantelpiece. The books on the white wooden shelves were arranged from below upwards according to bulk, (…) Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder.

One major way in which writers communicate a sense of character is through the use of metaphor. For example, read this extract from a poem by Charles Causley, entitled Ten Types of Hospital Visitor:

The first enters wearing the neon armour 

of virtue.

Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles

At everyone present

She destroys hope

In the breasts of the sick,

Who realize instantly 

That they are incapable of surrounding

Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays 

In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long. 

After a speedy trip around the ward

In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer

Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,

She returns home for a week

– With luck, longer – 

Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.

In this satirical sketch, Causley paints a picture of the type of self-righteous hospital visitor who thinks she is doing an enormous amount of good. He achieves this mostly by using the metaphor of a gunship going to battle – rather than doing any good, she is something to be feared by patients, she imposes herself, she is belligerently benevolent. Causley manages to turn the situation round so that it is she  who feels courageous – and in need of recuperation  – despite the fact she is supposed to be offering support to the sick.

Characters in literature, of course, are not usually portrayed in isolation, but in relationships with others, and as in ‘real life’, we come to understand personality much better by seeing how individuals interact. Authors use many of the methods mentioned above to depict credible relationships, and ones which might give us fresh insight into the way human nature works.

Conversation is very important. For instance this story is told almost all in dialogue of one type or another. After only a few words from each character, it is possible to understand  the relationship between these two people, and in particular, the reason why Walter Mitty does so much daydreaming:

“We’re going through!” The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!”…

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!’ said Mrs. Mitty. What are you driving so fast for?”

“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.

“You were up to fifty-five”, she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to forty-five.’ Walter Mitty drive on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind. 

“You’re tensed up again,” said Mrs. Mitty. “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”

Writers also make use of environment and surroundings to evoke the atmosphere within a relationship. This extract from a skilful poem by Thomas Hardy, called Neutral Tones, describes the bleakness and deafness of the landscape as two people exchange a few words of conversation. Years later, the poet recalls the scene in the light of bitter experience, and those surroundings here come to be emblematic, for him, of the disappointments and deceits of human relationships, and in particular of this relationship:

We stood by a pond that winter day,

And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,

And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;

– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray…
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,

And wrongs with wrong, have shaped to me

Your face, – the God-curst sun, and a tree,

And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

The close observation of behaviour is the key to good characterization, whether the writer explores in great psychological detail or merely suggests personality by the apt choice of a few observations. Engaging characters – who we can hate, love, sympathise with, want to know better, and believe in, – are vitally important, especially in novels and short stories, in making literature interesting to read, and in keeping the reader’s interest once captured.

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