A Christmas Carol — one of the most enduring stories in the history of fiction, and not least because of its central character, the insufferable Ebenezer Scrooge. It has been adapted for television, film and theatre probably more times than any other work of fiction I can think of. That is because it is rooted in such a strong character with such a deep flaw who shoulders such a profound message through the lesson he eventually learns. Every tendril of this story is seeded from Ebenezer’s faults. His character frames the angle from where the story is told, it frames the tone (which, I’m sure I don’t need to point out — but will — goes against the grain of the usual Christmas cheer found in festive tales). It also frames the plot.
It’s what I call the character’s psychological entrenchment — the psychology they are so buried within it prevents them from seeing how it is detrimental to their lives and that of others.
If Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t such a… Scrooge!... nothing in the story would work. The ghosts wouldn’t need to visit him because his life would not have been damaged by his own hard-heartedness. And if the ghosts have no need to visit, well… we might as well go and step into the pages of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (which is also great, but not the same beast).
But let’s look a little more closely at that. Without his characterisation such as it is, the ghosts would never have visited, meaning the plot would never have taken its first steps forward and evolved as it did. And yet also, if it wasn’t for his mean-spirited nature, his backstory would not have taken shape the way it has, and his backstory fuels the plot of the front story: his alienating his family, friends and neighbours, the mistreatment of his staff, his breaking off his engagement. Everything Ebenezer has done in his life up to the point where the story starts has entailed some kind of effect on the people who surround him. And not for the better.
Unknown to him at the beginning, his life is broken and it needs fixing.
That’s all viewing it from a big-picture perspective, but what about in the moment-to-moment technique? How does characterisation filter through on paragraph and sentence level? Scrooge might not recognise how broken he has become when the tale first launches, but the reader soon does, and not by absorbing a whole history of his life in the first few pages.
Lesson #1 from the great Dickens himself is how to establish character in the ‘now’ of the story, not the ‘then’ of the past — his backstory is fed in through the middle and is used not just to inform but to develop the character AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, the plot.
The scene on the first page opens with almost a tirade of details on just how miserly old Ebenezer is, firmly concreting the man’s nature, his voice, and his gait, all of which grow from his central penny-pinching core. See how it shapes the very vocabulary Dickens uses:
…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 cheeks, 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.
Of course, Dickens rather favoured a Telling narrative, as did many of the classical greats back when blogs and books about the craft of fiction writing were not even a whisper on the wind. And we all know how everyone loves the more modern mantra of ‘Show don’t Tell’ these days, but this here is proof how wrong that advice can be. Dickens knows how to Tell with verve. I challenge anyone to read the opening of a Christmas Carol and not be slapped in the face by the vivacity in which Dickens delivers his character under a telling narrative mode. The key here is to closely observe the type of vocabulary he uses to deliver it. Every description paints a picture of a lonely, emotionless, and unsympathetic creature — and ‘creature’ is how he comes across, for surely no human being could be so wretched? But Dickens does not stop at a short paragraph of well-chosen adjectives to depict this beast. He goes on to outline how other people consider him — they do not stop him in the street to ask after his health or well-being, and they certainly do not ever ask him for help. Even the street dogs divert away from him. All these details are deliberately used to establish exactly the character we are dealing with, even though we don’t know why he is this way. It doesn’t matter. What matters is only what is at this stage, not what has already come to pass.
But then, at the end of this fervent diatribe, the scene opens and we are placed in the room with our centrepiece of the tale, in the man’s counting-house, no less. On Christmas Eve!
Now, if that isn’t a piece of characterisation for you, I don’t know what is. And during this following paragraph, in rich description and Showing this time, the scene is set of a miserably freezing day.
Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather; foggy withal; and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day — and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.
You might be forgiven for assuming this paragraph earns its place simply for the purpose of scene-setting, but this is not the case. It sets up the next part of Scrooge’s characterisation in the following paragraph. On a freezing cold day such as this, at Christmas when people would normally feel more generous, Ebenezer guards his coal stash in his office so that his poor, ice-stiffened clerk cannot stoke up the temperature of his own fire in the next-door room where he works. All these descriptions serve one purpose only, and that is to highlight the unerringly stingy and hard-hearted nature of our main man.
(And coming from an upbringing of penny-pinchers — sorry, frugality — myself, I can confidently say that Scrooge missed a trick here. Had he shared his office with his clerk, they could have struck one fire instead of two and saved on the coal!)
But also take note of how much time was spent on those descriptions. Dickens indulged, but he didn’t indulge in telling us all of Scrooge’s backstory in those first couple of pages; he held back. One might argue another modern-day mantra — don’t Show and then Tell, or, in this case, Tell and then Show: Choose one or the other. But it’s Dickens, I’m sure we can forgive him ;). And for the purpose of learning, it’s perfect for showing two techniques to achieve the same goal sitting side by side on the page:
A lengthy paragraph of vivid description telling the reader what Scrooge’s character is like, dipped in a very strong vial of emotion in the narrative voice, accentuating how awful the man is.
Depiction showing the town’s people freezing cold, contrasted by Scrooge sitting on his piles of money (the counting house works metaphorically for that) and guarding how much coal is dispensed on the fire.
Read the first pages here.
So, if you ever ask yourself — or a fellow writer — how do you develop character throughout a story, here is your starting point: decide on what their psychological entrenchment is — what is the principal element that makes your character tick? Everything you write from there onward is slanted from that angle.
Guaranteed, if you enter their POV saturating everything they see, think and feel from this viewpoint it will affect which words you choose to construct your chapter. It will dictate the decisions the character makes in response to the story events. More importantly, it will set out the life lesson they need to learn in order to fix whatever was at fault in the first place and which led them into the heart of the story.
A little challenge for you, if you’d like to do some writing during the holidays: write a page or two about a character, introducing them for the first time to the reader, indulging in as much detail as possible (and yes — you can Show or Tell, or Both! It’s Christmas!!). Write from one of the following perspectives:
- Someone who is OCD.
- Someone who is an over-achiever.
- Someone who is a slacker/lazybum.
- Someone who is a fitness freak.
- Someone who is suffering from a major illness.
- Someone who likes to party all night.
- Someone with Agoraphobia.
- Someone who pities the poor.
- Someone who despises the poor.
Or make up your own.
If you are feeling really adventurous, try writing a combination of two or three of those different Points-of-View (POVs), writing a page per character, and see how the same details differ within the same scene with each character. Or how you can use one to contrast and highlight against another.
If you want, post your work or just let us know how you got on with the exercise. How did it affect your writing?
I’ll be back in the new year, so see you then.
Have a Merry Christmas, one and all!