My wife is a mild-mannered Children’s Book Editor by day, and a chef, knitter, puppy mom, and editor some more by night. Tonight, to my surprise and great pleasure, she wanted to post some thoughts on character idiosyncrasy, because I am lazy and didn’t get around to writing a post and she’s kind and understanding to a fault, and totally not writing this. Please, welcome her first guest post here, and enjoy!
It could be the wool fumes going to my head. It could be that this past weekend was the first time in the months since a colleague mentioned ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ that I found myself a) in front of a computer, b) not working, and c) with headphones, and thus spent much longer than I’d ever intended watching video after video of Lizzie, Lydia, and Jane Bennet (and other characters) in vlog form.
But somehow, my first thought this morning (besides the usual bemoaning the alarm clock and general desire for coffee, a shower, and a productive work day) was “I really want to wear my new socks!”
These new socks I wanted to wear were not your standard, six-pack from Target, run of the mill socks. Oh no. These were hand-knit, multicolored in the skein, mostly-wool, sized-just-for-me, made-them-myself new socks. This weekend I had finished some work. I had remembered that long-ago mention of Pride and Prejudice for the internet age. I had only half the length of my (admittedly short) foot to go on the second sock. And so, dear reader, I finished it.
Hence my first coherent thought this morning. Hence the shoes I drew forth from the slightly haphazard pile of footwear at my desk. Hence the comment from a co-worker this morning: “Wow, you planned your whole outfit just to show off your socks, didn’t you?”
But truly? Until she pointed it out – that I had on black tights and a black dress and black ankle-boots and SCREAMINGLY BRIGHT HAND KNIT WOOL SOCKS – I hadn’t even realized that I was the sort of person who would do something like pick out an outfit to showcase a particular article of clothing.
I mean, I make stuff all the time. Mittens, hats, shawls that I wear as scarves, socks, etc. I occasionally get asked whether I’ve made something, like a scarf, that I’m wearing to a meeting or on the way out to coffee with work friends. But base a morning’s wardrobe choice around my socks? Not necessarily how I would characterize myself.
And that is what’s so great about characters. Characters walking down the sidewalk in New York, characters in vlogs, characters in books. Characters are everywhere, and characters everywhere are idiosyncratic. I wonder if we’d all love (I’m a children’s book editor – trust me, we all love her) Anne of Green Gables if she wasn’t delightfully idiosyncratic – if she didn’t name plants and places, or hate her red hair, or dramatize every incident and story she read, or talk copiously and at great speed. I wonder if we’d all shudder at Roald Dahl’s witches if we didn’t know that they had squared-off feet and blue saliva and were constantly scratching their scalps underneath the very itchy wigs they must wear? I wonder if Meg Murray would be half so appealing if we didn’t know she’d like a tomato sandwich and not the liverwurst and cream cheese one Charles Wallace offers to make for their mother? Would we find Katniss Everdeen as sympathetic if she hunted for her family simply to feed them and because she needs bow-and-arrow expertise for the plot, rather than realizing how much she loves being outside the fence around District 12?
One of the nicest things about surrounding myself with characters all the time – in manuscripts at work, in people I spend time with, in books on the shelves at home that I stare at longingly because there are always more manuscripts that need to become books and don’t allow much reading time – lies not in realizing how they work, or in being able to designate what constitutes a good character, or what makes for an uninteresting voice (though I do that too). It’s that characters are so delightful. And though in the books I work on and the books I enjoy reading voice and world-building are the aspects of a story that attract me the most, characters are what give those fictional worlds reason to exist, and what are behind the voices I’m drawn to.
And characters, whether they’re real or online or in books, are idiosyncratic. I am hardly through the existing videos of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but just a little way in, it’s already clear that people playing along with the vlog feel strongly about particular characters (and not just that the man playing Bing Lee is adorable). The creators seem a little apologetic that certain viewers don’t like Lydia’s character very much, or even Lizzie’s. But guess what? The fact that viewers are able to like or dislike them, or find them annoying (for the record, I find the whole thing to be a lot of fun, and Lydia’s character in particular, like, totes adorbs) means that the writers and actors have done a good job in creating believable characters.
Because we all know what’s going to happen! I imagine that relatively few viewers of the LBD vlog haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, or seen the movie with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (or even the Kiera Knightley version, if they’re willing to make life choices different from mine). We know that Darcy and Lizzie will end up together, his pride and her prejudice notwithstanding. We know that Lydia and Wickham are going to run off together (though I can’t imagine Lydia being ruined a good impetus for the Bennet family to panic if it’s set in the present day, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show handles it). We know that Jane and Bing Lee, the two nicest people in literature, are going to reconcile despite Lizzie’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride. So why keep watching?
For some? Because we are (read: I am) total suckers for retellings of Shakespeare, fairy tales, and Jane Austen novels. I am there in the acknowledgements of Elizabeth Eulberg’s delicious Prom and Prejudice for a reason, and not just because we have been known to occasionally geek out over movie versions of Jane Austen together. But for anyone who’s not already a fan, or doesn’t know the plot inside out and backwards? It’s because the characters are so well done. For the LBD viewers complaining that Lydia is annoying and skipping over the videos that she posts – isn’t that degree of engagement with the character the point? She’s always inserting herself into Lizzie’s videos, so it makes complete sense for her character to take over Lizzie’s vlog when her big sister is away, or to post her own videos when she’s off staying with her cousin, because she loooves the attention. She goes so far as to create a twitter account for her cat! And Jane? Who always apologizes when she comes to talk to Lizzie and the camera’s on, and has to be dragged into participating with the re-enactments, even though most of the actual content being discussed on Lizzie’s vlog is about Jane’s life? Her character’s participation on the site is mostly pictures of outfits that she’s worn or wearing or planning to wear for a specific occasion. Silent, posed, unobtrusive photos. Because that’s in line with the character as written for the site.
So in a way, it stands out that Lydia would post videos on a site that’s supposed to be her sister’s vlog – yet it’s completely in line with her character’s personality. Or it’s interesting that when two of three Bennet sisters post videos, the eldest posts photos instead of vlogging. Also totally what that Jane Bennet would do.
Because characters, when done correctly, when written so that readers or viewers believe in them enough to root for them or complain about them, when they come alive, are idiosyncratic. They do or say or think things that don’t move along the plot but do underline the way they are. Other characters they encounter might be surprised by certain small traits they possess – but they’re believable in no small part because of those small practices and habits and private traditions and actions and thoughts that don’t mean anything except to them.
Sometimes characters surprise themselves with their own idiosyncrasies as much as they do their authors or readers. Sometimes they wake up and commute in to work and get halfway through their morning before a friend points out that they’ve dressed themselves with the single goal of showcasing their new, hand knit socks.