Crafting Effective Characters Part Three


The Comic Companion plays a pivotal role in many, many successful tales.

Scout in the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit, Sam in The Lord of the Rings, Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter stories, Mole in The Wind in the Willows, are just a few examples. Sometimes they serve as the narrative “eyes” through which we, the readers, observe the actions of a protagonist hero or heroine; sometimes they evolve into a more serious protagonist.

Herbert Pocket from Dicken’s Great Expectations, is a perfect example of this archetypal figure —Pip, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, goes to London to begin his education and meets Herbert, whom he discovers is the "pale young gentleman" with whom he earlier fought as a child. Pip and Herbert share chambers at Barnard's Inn and at the Temple and become best friends. Herbert helps teach Pip "city manners", while Pip secretly helps Herbert become a partner in the firm of Clarriker and Co. which enables his friend to marry his sweetheart. Herbert is the optimistic, never-say-die, often unintentionally amusing companion who will play a pivotal role later — his emotional response to any given situation is usually one of cheerfulness:


"What a hopeful disposition you have!" said I, gratefully admiring his cheery ways.

"I ought to have," said Herbert, "for I have not much else!”


This steadfast cheerfulness is a quality sought in companions —and almost universally found, from Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader through to R2-D2 in Star Wars.

As we come down the Character Development Chart, we can isolate other kinds of individuals from literature, some of whom serve only as background ‘colour’, like Rottcodd from Mervyn Peake’s famous Gormenghast trilogy, a character to whom very little happens and who fades somewhat into the background of the text:

Entering at seven o'clock, winter and summer, year in and year out, Rottcodd would disengage himself of his jacket and draw over his head a long, grey overall which descended shapelessly to his ankles. Having flicked at the first carving on his right, Rottcodd would move mechanically down the long phalanx of colour, stopping for a moment before each carving, his eyes running up and down it and all over it, and his head wobbling knowingly on his neck, before he introduced his feather duster.


Boredom, by definition, is not interesting and such characters tend to play a small part in fiction, but they are there on the edges —the pedantics, the lackadaisical, on the fringes of the action; it is also true that most Tragic heroes fall through this phase on their way down — Macbeth, for instance, captures the sense of despairing lack of meaning in anything perfectly:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.


As we go further down the chart from the flawed hero, something interesting should be noted — we move away from the Epic genre altogether, approaching Irony and moving towards the Ironic anti-hero. There is a spectrum of character types, and as we approach the villain, we find common characteristics: antagonistic and destructive to self, others and the environment, fiction’s antagonists desire command in order to injure and are dangerous to society. Authoritarian, chronically and bluntly dishonest when the occasion arises, twisting truth to suit antagonism, these characters talk in threats, invalidating other people and listening only to threats in return. Such characters are very often introduced in terms which set in place what we are to expect from them, like the bullying Mrs. Joe Gargery in Great Expectations:


My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much.


Openly mocking positive communication, Mrs. Joe is a model for such characters as she deals in hostile or threatening criticism in defence of his or her own reality. This character type constantly attempts to undermine others, chronically disagrees, uses responsibility to further his or her own ends, and persists towards the destruction of his or her enemies. Nagging and blunt criticism is the norm; this character occasionally experiences some pleasure in extraordinary moments, but is often misunderstood.

There we have the perfect model for a range of villains and anti-heroes in literature: Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Sauron and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and so on.

In moments of extremity, such important characters can get even worse: they actively destroy, get very angry, are guilty of rape or murder, smash or destroy others or their environment. They may (and often do) destroy themselves. Fascistic, insincere, they are a heavy liability even when their intentions are avowedly good. They are basically criminal and immoral, actively dishonest, usually involved in blatant and destructive lying and talking only of death, destruction and hate. Assuming responsibility in order to destroy, they often begin strongly, but weaken quickly.

When they move the other way, though, as Mrs. Joe does by the end of Great Expectations, or like Prince Andrew’s belligerent father in War and Peace, we find that we, as readers, are often profoundly moved: the realism of their portrayal has meant that the shift in key has a deeper effect on us than it otherwise might have done. We feel pity, sympathy and a sense of lost potential, and the characters become more meaningful and real.

But this doesn’t cover all villains or negative characters: there is a band which is even worse or more covert, which covers most of the rest of such characters in literature.

This is the kind of character who lives in fear. Promiscuity, perversion and the use of sly means to control others, especially hypnotism make them an active liability to the hero. They usually screen their dishonesty with a pseudo-ethical mask and ingenious and vicious perversions of truth, like the brilliantly described Steerpike in Gormenghast:


If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing — flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy — some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.


But he or she is in doubt about most things, and is incapable, capricious and irresponsible, vacillating on any given course with very poor concentration. He or she nullifies others to get them to a level where they can be used, using devious and vicious means seeking hidden control. Real pleasure is out of reach for this character and he or she is generally despised. Luckily, he or she nearly always fails.

Numerous other examples leap to mind: the sycophantic Mr. Collins is a comic example Pride and Prejudice; Mrs. Coulter is a stronger type in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The whole society seems to operate at his band in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, while both Gollum and Wormtongue —”a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes”— demonstrate it perfectly in The Lord of the Rings. Baron Von Harkonnen is an example of it in Dune.

There are even lower bands of characters, though, as we will see.

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