Sometimes characters come easily. Other times they slip through your fingers like baitfish, or change imperceptibly through the writing until they become someone completely different. Sometimes they are natural, and the dialogue spills out of them as if they’ve had a few beers after work. Others grind and scratch – usually because I haven’t understood them properly from the first.
Historical characters are all too often caricatures. The women are feisty. The working men are gruff and unshaven. Ship’s captains are either Hornblower without the seasickness or Ahab without his whale. Officials and governors are duffers.
It’s easy to understand how this happens. Sometimes it’s done playfully, or in tribute, or as part of an infexible rule of genre. I’ve done it.
But unconsciously, what we think we know about people of the past is fixed in our minds by our own reading (or even movies) so it feels natural to recreate favourite Austen or Dickens figures. When I think of the French Revolution, what I’m imagining is Carton on the scaffold while Madame Defarge knits, or Hilary Mantel’s tragic Desmoulins – or perhaps even the Scarlet Pimpernel. That’s in spite of having read thousands of pages of non-fiction on the subject.
It also feels natural to imbue them with our own contemporary attitudes. Sometimes this works, especially if it’s done consciously. In Fingersmith Sarah Waters rendered a Dickensian London around a Collins plot topped by a layer of feminist perception – perfectly. In other cases, the characters simply don’t ring true, no matter how meticulously their outfits are described.
Readers expect some post-Freudian, or even post-Flaubertian, depth – and fair enough, too – which results in self-aware characters, living in pre-Freudian fictional worlds.
You won’t get away, nowadays, with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens, for all his intricate plotting and forensic detail, was hardly a light touch with the quill.
When, recently, I read Adam Zamoyski’s 1812, I saw Pierre trudging through the snow with the other prisoners of war, and Denisov in every guerilla attack.
James Wood touched on Tolstoy’s genius for creating historical characters and detail in his rather scathing review of John Bayley’s The Power of Delight in the LRB:
“For Tolstoy, Bayley suggests, creation of character was not really a voluntary act, a willed thing; it was something he almost could not help, and his favourite male characters, like Stiva Oblonsky or Pierre Bezukhov, or even, in a way, Napoleon, share with Tolstoy this infectious, involuntary solipsism: they cannot help being themselves. It is the same with Tolstoyan comedy: ‘In general we feel about Tolstoy’s humour that he is not concerned with it himself, and probably rather despises the notion, but that it comes out from under his hand involuntarily when his narrative is at its best.’ This is very subtle, and similar subtlety is brought to bear on Tolstoy’s superlative use of detail. Detail is not lovingly fondled and fetishised as it is in Flaubert or Nabokov or Updike; it is always on the move: ‘At their best, Tolstoy’s details strike us neither as selected for a particular purpose nor accumulated at random, but as a sign of a vast organism in progress, like the multiplicity of wrinkles on a moving elephant’s back.’ At moments like these, Bayley seems to see literature from the inside, as writers themselves do.
Tolstoy, like Chekhov, makes most writers seem forced, hysterical, self-indulgently ‘stylish’.”