Bringing Characters to Life by Studying the Master

Last winter, the British news organization, the Telegraph, did a series of stories called My Favorite Charles Dickens Character. There were 27 installments of this series each written by a different Telegraph staffer. Twenty-seven! That’s a lot of favorite characters by one author, yet really, it only scratches the surface of great Dickens characters. He had an uncanny ability to make characters jump off the page and into your living room.

So how did he do that? An essay at cites some interesting examples from LITTLE DORRIT:

1) One is individual speech patterns. Dickens had an ear for how people talked. When a character named Arthur Clennam stops at an inn, he is asked if he would like to see a room:

“‘Chaymaid!’ cried the waiter. ‘Gelen box num seven wish see room!’
“‘Stay!’ said Clennam, rousing himself. ‘I am not going to sleep here. I am going home.’
“‘Deed sir? Chaymaid! Gelen box num seven, no go sleep here, gome.'”

The waiter is not a major character but he is completely captured by his speech.

2) Dickens also has an eye for distinctive appearance. Here is hoe he describes Little Dorrit’s uncle:

“He was dirtily and meanly dressed, in a threadbare coat, once blue, reaching to his ankles and buttoned to his chin, where in vanished in the pale ghost of a velvet collar. A piece of red clothe with which that phantom had been stiffened was now laid bare, and poked itself up, at the back of the old man’s neck, into a confusion of gray hair and rusty stock and buckle which altogether nearly poked his hat off.”.

3) Some of Dicken’s characters make themselves memorable by their actions and manner. Flora Finching is a mature woman, but she acts like a young girl:

“‘Indeed I have little doubt,’ said Flora, running on with astonishing speed and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, ‘that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I’m sure than that the lady should accept you and think herself very well-off too…'”

In these three examples, Dickens uses three different techniques to affix these characters in readers’ minds: voice, detailed description and action. In each case, he takes the one major quality that distinguishes each of these characters and uses it to define them. If you are going to be writing about other people, real or made-up, this is a good model to follow. You can practice next time you are at the gym or on a bus or waiting in line for a cashier. What distinguishes the woman in front of you or the man across the way? How would Dickens have portrayed them?