Like Shakespeare, another imaginatively fertile and vivacious writer, Dickens created dozens of characters who continue to delight readers today. His ability to invent such living characters was aided by his experience as a newspaper reporter: The job forced him to observe people’s looks, words, and manner very closely and then record these observations accurately.
Of course, the disposition was already there. Even in childhood, Dickens was fascinated with images — the eternal features of things and people — and his talent for creating comic and grotesque characters manifested itself quite early. Aside from the generous amount of adventure in most of his novels, what draws readers to them year after year, through all the changes of fad and fashion, is the vitality of the characters and the fun — or drama — they give rise to in dynamic episodes.
Worth noting is the fact that characters in fiction do not actually have to be lifelike, in the sense of being complex and highly individualized, in order to be successful and memorable. Talking animals aren’t at all lifelike, yet more than a few have achieved status as compelling characters. The Fool in King Lear has relatively few lines, some of them rather obscure, yet few minor characters have become more memorable. Claggart, the villain in Billy Budd, is barely characterized at all, but he haunts us. What adds a character to the permanent repertoire of our minds is not dependent on “realism” or even on complete credibility, but solely on the magic vitality that an author is able to endow from the depths and riches of spontaneous creativity. Dickens possessed both the vitality and the skill to find the words that conveyed it.
Dickens is very much a satirist and a comic entertainer, and very little of a depth-hunting “psychologist” with literary talent. Twentieth-century “psychological” novelists (for example, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, May Sinclair) go minutely into the details of their characters’ inner lives. Inwardness, in its wide range of sensations, formed and half-formed thoughts and feelings, transient images, and quickly changing shades of mood, is offered in all its concreteness or particularity. This is a sort of “realism” — psychological realism — and its writers give us the sense that they are trying not only to be “real,” to “tell it like it is” without tidying or censoring, but also complete, as if they were scientists or clinicians attempting to construct a complete as well as a thoroughly accurate report. Such a method, despite its validity and success — it has produced a vast body of work, some of it highly successful — tends to have certain limitations of which its enthusiasts often seem oddly unaware. A reader may learn an immense amount of information about what goes on deeply with Character X and still not gain any distinct and satisfying impression of Character X as a person who might be encountered next door or at the grocery.
Ultimately, each of us is a whole, a personality, and each of us projects that organic wholeness, or personality, which is perceived by those around us and experienced as distinct and unique. Because we are what we are, each of us carries a certain “aura,” creates a certain presence, or impression. This is the visible self, the social self — the one that’s seen by others and interacts with them. Characterization through “free association,” “stream of consciousness,” or “reverie” easily neglects this important image reality and social reality of us. In all the things we do as social beings — that is, as onlookers and participants, from working and talking to simply observing each other in passing — what we experience is presences, impressions having unity and uniqueness and immediacy. Hence, in the context of interacting individuals, Dickens’ “external” or impressionistic method of characterization is in a sense actually more realistic, more true to what we experience in real life, than the seemingly more complete and “scientific” method of beginning from deep inside and then staying there. In any event, it was the image, the impression, the distinct presence and dramatic or graphic feature or manner, and at the same time delighting in the variety of human personalities, he tended to pack his books with greatly varying characters; the sheer number of his characters would in itself prevent him from drawing much upon the space-consuming method of characterization through deep inwardness. It has to be said that his achievement is creating a very large number of “living” characters by no means suffers in comparison with the work of the “stream of consciousness and other deeply psychological authors.
Main characters (principals) have to be made interesting if only because they are “around” so much of the time. They are also tied to the book’s serious themes, so we have to be able to take such important characters seriously: They dare not be trivial, monotonously simple and unchanging, or unreal.
For most readers, neither John Jarndyce nor Esther Summerson is completely real. They are characterized in such a way that they have dignity and seriousness, and they play crucial parts in the working out of Dickens’ important themes. Therefore, they invite comparison with individuals like those found in real life. But when we make that comparison — and we do so spontaneously, unconsciously, as we read — we discover that both characters seem too good to be true: unreal.
Lady Dedlock, fortunately, is not marred by such pristine purity. She is a much more interesting character, and she illustrates Dickens’ method when he creates “serious” characters — major or minor — in whom we become interested. The successful formula is to keep the characters human — keep perfection away — but make them good enough and likable enough to be “personable.” Such characters tend to ingratiate themselves with us. Then, by inventing circumstances of danger or suffering for them, Dickens can make sure that we remain interested in their fates. (Incidentally, readers in 1853 seem to have found portraits of exemplary goodness — especially of benevolence and moral purity — more engaging than we do today.)
One of Dickens’ specialties is caricature — that is, artistic distortion (as by exaggeration) designed to produce amusement but not contempt or indignation. Throughout Dickens’ novels, scores upon scores of the minor characters are caricatures. One of the most obvious examples in Bleak House is the unnamed “debilitated cousin” of Sir Leicester; the fellow mangles words and sentences right out of intelligibility. Snagsby, with his mechanical cough and predictable repetitions, is another; Phil Squod, of droll speech and odd movement, is yet another.
A character who is also a caricature “sticks out” — is eminently noticeable — and also usually arouses our comic sense. Thus a caricature is exactly the kind of thing that appealed strongly to Dickens’ own imagination: a conspicuous (therefore, arresting) image, and one that elicits goodnatured humor. Obviously, when Dickens created caricatures, he did what came most naturally to him as a writer, and so it isn’t surprising that his caricatures are often more successful than his ordinary characters. These many triumphs in caricature illustrate again the point made above, that characters highly stylized (artistically shaped and simplified) may have at least as much ability to capture and hold us as the characters of reportorial realism.