I was able to do something last night that I have wanted to do for a long time. The Western Colorado Writers Forum asked me to do a presentation for their monthly writers series, so I proposed a talk about creating vivid characters.
But this was a DECEMBER talk. What an opportunity! I based the entire presentation on Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”
And what a master-class demonstration of creating a character that story is! I argue that character can be revealed in seven different ways (with the possibility for an 8th technique): appearance, speech, actions, thought, how others respond to the character, how the character controls the environment, and what the narrator says directly about the character (the 8th, which I recently realized, is what the writer reveals about the character’s past).
Dickens uses all those techniques brilliantly in “A Christmas Carol,” starting with the one I advise writers to avoid: having the narrator directly state what the character is. Dickens starts the story with this technique, though:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
Dickens goes on like this for three more paragraphs, and its wonderful.
I pointed out that for many stories, the plot is a vehicle to carry a dynamic character from being one kind of person to another kind. “A Christmas Carol” certainly is that kind of story.
Then, Dickens uses the same techniques he used to introduce Scrooge to the readers to show that he’s a diffferent man at the end. He describes Scrooge’s appearance, speech, deeds, thoughts, control of his environment, how other characters react to him, and, finally, direct narrative exposition.
The story is a tour de force of character presentation.
The story ends with the same technique he used to begin, narrator exposition:
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”