Steampunk friends and fans, 200+ years after Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility (1811) she’s still one of the most read and re-read authors in a multitude of languages. In fairness, ask yourself what current Steampunk novel will have that staying power?
The hardest thing for a new author, like me, to do is face the fact that we are not Jane Austen and it may take time for us to develop our skills to match what appears to have come naturally to her (encouraged by a very open minded family and the late 18th Century private school system for girls.) Some writers are just that good. Good writers become that good. So today, you may not write the Great American Novel, but if you don’t put pen to paper, you will never write it.
What does Jane do that is so wonderful that we should emulate it? I’m no expert – only a fan – but here is one thing I want to improve in my skill set: Damn fine characters!
Characters you know in life but on a grander scale.
As a new(ish) writer, I question whether I’ve gone the distance with developing my characters.
We all know someone who is constantly thinking she’s sick, desperate for attention, and oblivious to anyone else’s needs. Mary Musgrove in Persuasion (1818) is not just self absorbed, she’s quite over the top in her inability to recognize any feelings but her own. She cruelly tells her sister Anne all about how Anne’s former love doesn’t think much of her anymore – as though sharing what she knows is more important than how that information will hurt her sister’s feelings. We know people who are like this on a much more subtle scale but to play the character of Mary out so strongly against the calm compassionate character of Anne Elliot gives the reader a sense of understanding for Anne. A link to Anne. Were Mary only a little attention seeking, Anne’s tried patience and deep wounds would never be recognized. Her disproportionally selfish family would not have the impact it does.
The lesson Austen gives us is that average is just not enough. We need to take our characters above and beyond. Mrs. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice, 1813) and her frivolousness is a clear exaggeration of a normal person so many of us could point to in our own social circles. The sense of entitlement and importance shown by Mrs. Bennet is inflated even more in the snobbery of Caroline Bingley, who does not even attempt to disguise her “snarky” rudeness towards her rival in Elizabeth Bennet. We feel for “Lizzie’s” bruised feelings and root for her all the more.
Not all characters are all one thing.
Villains are main the recipients of this limiting practice: making a character one dimensional. But if you look around, as Austen did in her time, you see that not everyone is all bad or all good. Think about your own social circle. You know some terrific people with a bad habit or two? I was shocked to learn one day that an acquaintance I otherwise admired held some rather racist notions. Did that make him a bad person? Or was he simply a person with a bad habit (I am glad to report he worked actively to counter.) Take George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice): a really bad guy who doesn’t entirely see himself as a bad guy. He turns out to be a liar and a blackmailer, but somehow he manages to do so while being charming. He believes he’s entitled to his gains and feels his grudge against Mr. Darcy is justified. And what of the famous Mr. Darcy? He arrogant, aloof, and antisocial – all behaviors we would see as being unacceptable, and yet in context of a wholly developed character, they are part of what makes him believable rather than a caricature of a hero. Mr. Darcy is probably one of Austen’s most enduring characters: flawed, good in heart, willing to learn.
The Lesson Austen give us is that no one is 100% anything. We all have flaws and those little quirks of nature are what make us interesting. Also, we (and our characters) see the world through limited lenses. Wickham is absolutely certain he is not the bad guy, but a put-upon man who is due something. His lens will never allow him to see that his actions are essentially wicked. Mr. Darcy sees the world through a rich man’s lens, not understanding the value of a person until he learns that lesson from Elizabeth Bennet.
Jane Ausen will last – her work has already withstood the test of time. The trick now is to develop our Austen-like writing skills so that we too can share our stories in a timeless way. Of course, with a few interesting inventions too.