How to introduce characters: Lessons from Charles Dickens

Welcome to our first episode of the season. I’m so happy that you’re here and I hope you find the reading helpful to you as both a reader and a writer.
Now, I spent a long time debating over which extract to launch this podcast with; should I have gone with a childhood favourite to indicate the longstanding impression it had on me personally as a writer, or a highly celebrated and critically acclaimed classic whose writing style and recurrent themes have featured on the school curriculum as far back as anyone can remember?
As I arranged and rearranged the order for season one, it hit me that, whichever story I start with, the lesson had to come first. The How To for you, as the emerging writer.
Like many great stories, Great Expectations is a mix of all the above – it’s a childhood favourite that I also studied at school as a classic. It comes with a great learning of how to set the scene and tone from the very first paragraph that will continue throughout the entirety of its narrative.
As you listen to the chapter, I’d like you to think about the language used in this passage – how the pace is set and how it changes, how the language forms an image of the characters in your mind, and how action propels the story forward. Reading as a writer allows you to look at the prose and deconstruct it to reveal the ‘how’ underneath.
Let’s take a look at the opening sentence, and what this tells us as both the reader and the writer:
‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.’
We know straight away that Pip is our main character, and this story is being told from his first-person perspective. We are given an origin story at the outset – who he is and where he comes from, plus what matters to him. For example, Pip refers to both his family name and his ‘Christian’ name in the opening lines; this tells us that roots and origin are important to him. The repetition of his ‘father’s family name’ reinforces this idea of origination.
Consider that he is known as and identifies as “Pip”. Like a seed, his given name hints at something small but, by its very nature, will grow and flourish. One would say our great expectations for Pip, and his future, are being marked out and settled into our minds already. His name gives us an idea about the personality or appearance of the character, this technique is called onomatopoeia and is used for additional characters in this story.
From the first paragraph we learn that Pip is an orphan living with his sister and the town blacksmith. Not only has Pip lost both his parents, but also his five siblings and his current circumstance is a sad and lonely one. This is Pip’s history, and despite his roots to it, is indicative of his ambitions to evolve past it.
The role of parenting is a prevalent theme throughout the novel – primarily, orphaned children in the care of a guardian and benefactor. The traditional role of mother and father has been inverted to instead feature adoptive parents, mentors, and guardians to the children in this story. Pip’s eldest sister is his guardian, along with her husband Joe, when we meet him. The seed for this theme has been planted here for us to later identify it reappearing later on throughout the novel.
Then we meet the hard, fearsome, and angry man (who we recognise as a convict through the description of his shackled hands and feet), who attacks Pip by the graves in the marshes, whilst he is crying. This act incites the pace of the story to shift (this is understood as a rising action; an incident that creates suspense, interest, and tension within a narrative). The result is an interruption to the reflective narrative that we are introduced to. This action also teases further insight for the characters through their behaviour under duress.
The convict’s demand for Pip to bring food the next day, and the threat of violence that succeeds it, sets the reader up for the following chapter in the story. Will Pip tell anyone about the convict? How will he manage to secure the food? Will he succeed?
Originally, Great Expectations began as a serialised novel; the chapters were released week on week in the All the Year-Round journal created by Dickens himself in 1860. Not only did this format make the story accessible to a larger audience, it also drove the structure of the novel itself. Dickens’ choice of plot, character, and style will have been directed by the requirements of publishing at weekly intervals. Details provided for the characters and setting needed to be memorable and impactful enough that readers would return to the story for the next publication.
Each chapter for Great Expectations (and many others of the time) serves as a mini story in itself. We recognise this style of storytelling in today’s stacked release for seasonal episodes of TV shows.
Every sentence in this opening passage is a promise of the whole story and through these questions that we are left with at the end of the passage we can see that Dickens had succeeded in delivering intrigue and the compulsion for readers to want to continue reading. He had secured an investment in his characters from his readers, had prepared them for what to expect in the next instalment and overall storyline, and had ensured they’d return to purchase the subsequent chapters. If readership dropped at any time throughout the weekly instalments, Dickens would have had to adjust the storyline accordingly.
Repetition as a literary device.
The repetition of words or phrases provides a rhythm and emphasis to the scene, committing the traits of a character, action, or setting to memory.
We can see how this is delivered in Dickens’s use of language and description, which have been loaded with tags. These are often repeated for the reader to build an association accordingly. For example:
‘He tilted me again’ is repeated 4 times, intensifying the character’s intent to intimidate and frighten the boy.
‘That young man’ is repeated 8 times – even though we can tell there isn’t a young man – the repetition is there to instill an image of fear and heightens the threat of violence.
The marshes were ‘just a long black horizontal line’, ‘the river was just another horizontal line’, the ‘sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed’ – everything is flat and bleak and angry and dense; hostile, unwelcoming and dangerous.
Through the stylistic use of repetition at the beginning of a sentence to create emphasis (Anaphora) – the description serves the purpose of delivering impact to the passage:
‘A man with no hat and with no shoes and with an old rag tied around his head’ is a sad and desperate sight and is imprinted in the mind of the reader.
‘A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe…’ The convict is showing Pip that he is one step ahead of the boy and any thought of escape from the threat.
Through the effect of using several conjunctions in close succession, (polysyndeton), Dickens heightens emphasis for these character tags, painting a picture of desperation; ‘A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars.’ Would you quickly forget a character like that?
These are just a few of the devices used in this chapter. Through them we have encountered a small and impressionable child, a hard but desperate man, whose paths have become intertwined with a promise. Did you pick up any other instances of repetition in this passage?
Your Exercise
For today’s exercise, I’d like you to describe an event from memory as if you were telling a story at a family dinner, ending the story with the intention to give the next instalment the following week. Think of how you might introduce the story and the language you might use. How you’d describe your characters. How you’d change the pace. Set your timer for a 20 minute writing sprint and see how you get on. What does your writing reveal to you when you read it back to yourself?
Thank you for joining us this week!
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Until next time, keep reading and writing, with your #eyestothehorizon

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