Thursday, 1 April 2010

F Scott Fitzgerald: Characterisation

I’m currently re-reading The Great Gatsby. I’d forgotten how great it is! One of the reasons it’s such a great novel, of course, is that Gatsby himself is one of literature’s truly great characters. As John Mullan, Professor of English at UCL, has said, ‘nothing is … more important in our reading of novels than the sense that we are encountering real people in them’. And it’s not just Gatsby who is ‘real’. The whole novel is an F Scott Fitzgerald master- class in characterisation.

Here’s the first appearance in The Great Gatsby of a minor character, Myrtle Wilson:
Then I heard footsteps on a stairs, and in a moment the thickish figure blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering. She smiled slowly and, walking through her husband as if he were a ghost, shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips, and without turning around spoke to her husband in a soft, coarse voice:
‘Get some chairs, why don’t you, so somebody can sit down.’

Then, a few pages later, we’re introduced to Myrtle’s sister, another bit-part player:
The sister, Catherine, was a slender, wordly girl of about thirty, with a solid, sticky bob of red hair and, a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature towards the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face. When she moved about there was an incessant clicking as innumerable pottery bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms. She came in with such a proprietary haste, and looked around so possessively at the furniture that I wondered if she lived there. But when I asked her she laughed immoderately, repeated my question aloud, and told me she lived with a girlfriend at a hotel.

Each character gets one paragraph. Each paragraph consists of less than 130 words. And yet in each case, Fitzgerald has created a living, breathing character we feel we know well enough to believe in.

The critic James Wood asserts (in his book How Fiction Works) that ‘there is nothing harder than the creation of fictional characters’. As writers, we all know that characters are built through a combination of appearance, action and speech – that’s basic craft. But the art is to show the reader exactly the right amount of appearance, action and speech in just the right proportions. Which is exactly what Fitzgerald does.


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Anonymous said...

Thanx - gd blog!