A Dickens of a Character

I visited a really interesting exhibit on Charles Dickens at the New York Public Library last week called The Key To Character. The exhibit examines Dickens’ characters, their origins and explores why they are so easily visualized. Someone actually went to the trouble of counting the total number of Dickens characters (3,592). I’m a big fan of Dickens’ work and characters. They come so easily to life in the mind. He was a master at suggesting the inner life of a character through the description of their outer appearance. Vivid descriptions (of both place and people) and vivid characters are Dickens in a nutshell for me.

Dickens has a strong connection to the theatre of writing and the theatre of the mind. He often went on tour to do dramatic readings of his books, and it’s not a surprise there are so many theatrical adaptations of A Christmas Carol (I even have one).

A Dickens quote that jumped out at me from the exhibit is this: “Producing a play was like writing a book in company.” I don’t know if I agree that every book works as a play with more people, but I do believe Dickens comes to life quite well. It comes down to those vivid characters.

And as a character writer, I loved this exhibit. I loved seeing the notebook where he jotted down names for potential characters. (Geek out! Dickens and I do something the same!) It was fascinating to see how events in his life influenced the characters in his work. For example I had no idea that Dickens was sent to jail and was forced work in a shoe-polish factory when he was twelve (12!!) because of his father’s debts. He was basically abandoned, or orphaned as it were – is it any wonder that orphans figure so prominently in his writing?

Here is a Dickens writing exercise. Read the following description of a character from The Old Curiosity Shop. Based on your impression of the character from Dickens’ outwardly description, write an inner monologue. Then click here to learn more about the character.

 … elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog. His dress consisted of a large high-crowned hat, a worn dark suit, a pair of capacious shoes, and a dirty white neckerchief sufficiently limp and crumpled to disclose the greater portion of his wiry throat. Such hair as he had was of a grizzled black, cut short and straight upon his temples, and hanging in a frowzy fringe about his ears. His hands, which were of a rough, coarse grain, were very dirty; his fingernails were crooked, long, and yellow.

What do you think about Dickens?

About the author

Lindsay Price