Writers can be brutal in their descriptions of their minor characters. While the protagonist is usually complex and multilayered, writers have the freedom to let loose when they describe the bit players.
Whether toad-like (JK Rowlings’ Dolores Umbridge) or John Updike’s ageing olive-coloured wife, it seems that some writers find great enjoyment in describing their characters’ unappealing attributes and readers take just as much pleasure laughing and wincing at them.
One of my favourites is Charlotte Bronte’s description of Jane Eyre’s competitor for the hand of Mr Rochester, Miss Ingram.
“Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine; she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments, but her mind was poor and her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books; she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own.”
I wonder which person in Bronte’s life she was thinking of when she wrote those words.
Jane Austen’s descriptions of her less admirable characters in Pride and Prejudice are just as disdainful, from her depiction of Mrs Bennet’s silliness and single-mindedness to her mockery of William Collins and his misguided proposal.
These writers paint their characters in a way that you might describe your enemies when debriefing with your best friends. It might be mean, but it is without doubt satisfying.
It’s not just a character’s personality that comes under a harsh microscope in literature, but descriptions of their appearances can be equally punishing.
In Hard Times, Charles Dickens describes Mr Bounderby as:
“A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him.”
Authors of more recent novels are just as likely to get stuck in when they describe their lesser characters. In Commonwealth, Ann Patchett was cutting when she summed up the appearance of one sister with the ultimate backhanded compliment:
“Bonnie X should leave Los Angeles, or at the very least she should move to the Valley, to a place where no one knew her older sister, because when not juxtaposed to that sister, Bonnie was a perfectly attractive girl. Put the two of them together and Bonnie was a Shetland pony standing next to a racehorse.”
And who could be as nasty as John Updike, who writes of a husband looking upon his wife in Run, Rabbit, Run?
“She is a small woman whose skin tends toward olive and looks tight, as if something swelling inside is straining against her littleness. Just yesterday, it seems to him, she stopped being pretty … These tiny advances into age have occurred imperceptibly, so it seems just possible that tomorrow they’ll be gone and she’ll be his girl again.”
Other times, writers are more sympathetic to some characters’ physical and character flaws while excusing others’, making it clear who are the good and the bad guys. In last year’s bestseller, Queenie, there was a significant disparity in the title character’s friends’ descriptions compared with those of the men who let her down.
Told from Queenie’s point of view, her friends are kind, hilarious and gorgeous. The male characters, on the other hand, are deceptive and opportunistic. I wonder whether her friends might have been just as devious if their own secrets were told?
In John Purcell’s The Girl on the Page, the protagonist might be self-destructive, devious and deceitful, but it is her boss and nemesis, Julia, who is presented to the reader as being entirely unlikeable while Amy is ultimately accepted and forgiven for her poor behaviour.
The point of view clearly impacts on the way the characters are described, and the behaviours that are highlighted by the writer.
All this makes me wonder how I would be described by a writer swiftly summing up my parts – would I be loud and sharp-featured, or blonde and chatty? My hair might catch the light or be stringy and my skin tone peachy or pallid and my legs strong or stumpy. As far as character, would they disapprovingly home in on my enjoyment of gossip or admire my loyalty? Depending on the story being told and from whose perspective, I could be described in hundreds of ways, just like anyone.
I think it’s better not to know, and to sit back and enjoy the brutal, scathing honesty of the depictions of fictional characters that make me laugh, and occasionally nod in recognition of those traits that my favourite authors have so expertly described.