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: