A glass of Château de Chasselas

One of the first things any reader judges in a book or a movie, is whether the characters are believable. This can be highly subjective; or it may mean applying an implicit criteria to how a character behaves. Generally it means the characters act in a way that is commensurate with the reader’s experience. If they do, those qualities can help understanding and establish empathy, which is a curious emotion to stimulate in connection with fictional beings.

In certain genres characters act in different ways, which, if they were to jump genre would be funny or just silly, like crossing musical genres with odd results. In science fiction characters are highly intelligent as they have several hard drives of data and background information to relate; their objective is to master a situation, sometimes a crisis. In detective fiction, especially the hard-boiled type of the Depression and post-World War 2 era, the characters are flinty, cynical and take all their daily calories as hard liquor. In the English detective fiction between the wars, the type that Chandler disabused, the characters comprise ordinary people without marked tics of behavior, the detective is not troubled by existential doubts but he rights the wrongs “when some pretty rum sort of things have occurred, don’t you know.”

I still haven’t convinced anyone that a sci-fi epic made in the style of an English soap opera would work. Just when the intergalactic ship is overwhelmed with superior destructive forces the spaceship’s captain and his wife sit down to a nice cup of tea and have a chat.

This train of thought started with Dickens. In a Dickens’s novel there are the wildly mad characters, they are greedy, mean, glutinous, cruel, reclusive; they have disgusting habits and look weird. They call cats, ‘brimstone beasts’; they recite their achievements as catechism at any moment, like Josiah Bounderby, who might have been one of the Four Yorkshiremen. That character’s awful bombast is quite amusing, in a certain way. It wasn’t intended to be funny and no doubt no reader at the time laughed at his absurd pronouncements.

The curiosity about Dickens’s work is that the characters are lively but exaggerated. Almost caricatures. How did readers in the mid-nineteenth century see them; were they considered real?

We read those books now and tell ourselves that the characters are overdone for various reasons and accept it, we know it’s a limitation of otherwise very powerful writing. It’s hard to see this logic at the time with readers using such a caveat. The popularity of the books, the serials, as they were being produced depends on acceptance, grudgingly given believability is never enough to win over readers. “Well that Martin Chuzzlewit is fine enough, but he’s very mean and cruel to his grandson. I don’t like him at all.” Now an unsympathetic lead character might finish a book. This fictional same reader might recognize the authenticity of the character as being similar to a real person.

Martin Chuzzlewit and Mrs. Clenman might be quite real to a reader in 1850, but to a reader in 2014 they would appear deranged, mentally unstable and even dangerous. If that is so it says that people are always changing and that writers may reflect the shifts in social and personal transformation.

And even if that is not quite true, Dickens’s characters could be amusing in a bizarre sense. It’s a style of characterization that is more common in comedy and so it’s quite feasible that Dickens was the 7th Python.

Guy Cranswick
12th June 2014

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