Sunday 10 April 2016

Introducing your Main Character: A Master Class from William Makepeace Thackeray

The modern novel most often leaves you in little doubt as to who the protagonist is by plunging you into his or her perspective in the very first line and/or naming him/her in the opening sentence. The cry of agents and publishers everywhere is that the character, and the stakes for the character, must be firmly established in the opening paragraphs—that the story should start in the ‘right’ place.

But, whisper it, there is another way to provoke interest in your character—delay. This approach isn’t suited to close third narration but works well for an omniscient viewpoint and is exemplified in the opening pages of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8).

Becky Sharp leaving Chiswick illustration
Thackeray’s panoramic masterpiece opens in Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies:

While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. A black servant, who reposed on the box beside the fat coachman, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew up opposite Miss Pinkerton's shining brass plate, and as he pulled the bell at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the stately old brick house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognized the little red nose of good-natured Miss Jemima Pinkerton herself, rising over some geranium pots in the window of that lady's own drawing-room. 

In these few lines we are introduced to an array of characters, giving us a good indication of the large cast to come. There’s a fat coachman, the black servant, a score of young ladies and two named characters, the Miss Pinkertons. But none of these people are our main characters. In fact, Thackeray tells us, a few paragraphs later:

Honest Jemima had all the bills, and the washing, and the mending, and the puddings, and the plate and crockery, and the servants to superintend. But why speak about her? It is probable that we shall not hear of her again from this moment to the end of time, and that when the great filigree iron gates are once closed on her, she and her awful sister will never issue therefrom into this little world of history.

William Makepeace Thackeray
A natural assumption might be that the soon-to-be-occupant of the large family coach will be our heroine, and, sure enough, she is soon introduced—Amelia Sedley. But again our expectations are confounded. After a letter detailing Miss Sedley’s numerous accomplishments (music, dancing, orthography, embroidery, needlework, religion, morality, deportment, although she is sadly deficient in geography), Miss Pinkerton adds a brusque postscript:

P.S.—Miss Sharp accompanies Miss Sedley. It is particularly requested that Miss Sharp's stay in Russell Square may not exceed ten days. The family of distinction with whom she is engaged, desire to avail themselves of her services as soon as possible.

The contrast between Miss Pinkerton’s glowing description of Miss Sedley and lack of detail about Miss Sharp interests the reader. We find ourselves wondering ‘what’s wrong with her?’, increasing the emotional stakes for us even without instant identification with the primary character.

This interest grows a few lines later, when we learn Miss Sharp’s full name and see Miss Pinkerton’s reluctance to give her a dictionary.

Being commanded by her elder sister to get "the Dictionary" from the cupboard, Miss Jemima had extracted two copies of the book from the receptacle in question. When Miss Pinkerton had finished the inscription in the first, Jemima, with rather a dubious and timid air, handed her the second.

"For whom is this, Miss Jemima?" said Miss Pinkerton, with awful coldness.

"For Becky Sharp," answered Jemima, trembling very much, and blushing over her withered face and neck, as she turned her back on her sister. "For Becky Sharp: she's going too."

"MISS JEMIMA!" exclaimed Miss Pinkerton, in the largest capitals. "Are you in your senses? Replace the Dixonary in the closet, and never venture to take such a liberty in future."

"Well, sister, it's only two-and-ninepence, and poor Becky will be miserable if she don't get one."

Becky Sharp then is a character who exacts strong responses from other characters, and one who other characters can misjudge. For Becky doesn’t care in the least if she receives a dictionary or not, as we learn when she hurls it out of the carriage window. A reader certainly doesn’t know her, or understand her motivations at this juncture, but is nevertheless invested in her and her story.

The next time you’re playing with an opening, or introducing an important character, consider: How can delay and enigma help me build a character? Can I avoid giving everything away instantly, while still remaining true to my narration? Instead of having them dive at once into the water, see if you can lead your readers out to sea.

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