Austen's Use of Character


One of the defining figures of early 19th century literature, Jane Austen wrote six novels, most of them set in the Hampshire countryside where she lived her whole life. Her work is noted for its economy, formality and subtlety, but what makes Austen’s work tick is people. To write like her, you need to be sharp, observant and witty - but you also need to use the secret language of fiction, as described in the book How Stories Really Work, in particular ways.

Whereas by far the majority of narrative fiction draws upon the question ‘What happens next?’ to draw the reader forward, Austen’s motive force is character. Take for example the opening of her novel Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Two things are set up here: as readers, we wonder why, if our heroine is so handsome, clever, and rich, and has a good home and is happy, we should be interested in her at all. Protagonists are usually defined by what they have lost, what they don’t have. Austen knows this very well, consciously or unconsciously. For a character to be introduced to us in this way, she is drawing upon that knowledge to make us question this description, or view it ironically. And then there is the uncertainty provoked by the last phrase: if she has lived ‘nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’, what is about to happen to upset that pattern?

Austen is using the rock-bottom nature of character-driven fiction to draw us in here: if nothing ‘vexing’ has yet happened, we know that something negative must happen for there to be a story at all; if a protagonist is so perfect, we know something is going to be removed from her for her to be in the least bit attractive as a protagonist.

Austen also uses something that has come to be called Free Indirect Discourse (FID). This is a way of incorporating the thoughts, opinions or general set of vocabulary that the character in question would use into the general text. So, for example, though we have the author’s third person, apparently omniscient testimony that Emma is ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, these are words which Emma might use to describe herself in her vanity, rather than an objective outsider’s assessment of her character. So we, as readers, are subtly invited to see for ourselves whether such characteristics are in fact present or not.