Tag Archives: bertie wooster

Character: Suffering

When I was young I always wondered why stories had to involve problems and suffering.  Why couldn’t it be the story of people who got on ok, had a laugh, got married, gave a big thumbs-up to the camera/reader?  What was with all the problems, arguments, injuries, and death?

I wish I had a good answer.  But the truth is, the greater the problem, the faster the pages turn.  I have missed very few stops on the Tube because of a book, but I did for Charles Palliser’s Quincunx (try saying that in mixed company) the story of a middle-class boy who, through the complications of a will and five families, descends through the strata of Regency society facing one problem after another.  Couldn’t put it down.

In novels the most interesting character is often the one who suffers.  Or, in Dostoevsky, the one who sweats the most.  Having said that, there are characters who have clearly suffered more than the main character.  The sycophantic prisoner in Life of Brian for example, (‘they only hung me the right way up yesterday!’).  But the main character is the one whose suffering we are tied into, the one we are walking alongside.  The suffering doesn’t have to be Auschwitz-level.  Bertie Wooster is always in danger of getting engaged to some determined-but-daffy horror, when all he wants to do is wake up in the morning and eat kippers.  But boy does he suffer.

Character: The Leading Man

At a friend’s request, I once took part in a short dancing course.  Whenever we did the waltz the teacher would shout, ‘Men! Lead!’  The thing was, I think, we just didn’t want to impose.

But in popular fiction that’s exactly what the hero is expected to do.  Jack Reacher comes into town, he biffs some people, boffs some others, leaves town.  He is the existential wanderer, the knight of old.  And it’s not just in men’s fiction.  Georgette Heyer, for all of her many novels, had two male leads: Mark I, ‘brusque savage sort with a foul temper’; and Mark II, ‘suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip’.  Imposers both.

The trouble is that I tend to write the main male character as a version of myself.  And although I’ve had my moments, I spend a lot of time watching telly.  Try this: ‘I wonder if there’s enough Nutella left to put on my crackers,’ thought Bond.  He took his Walther PPK off the TV guide and flicked through the evening’s viewing.’

So, what do you do, if your main character is essentially passive?  A character like Bilbo Baggins would be much happier doing nothing.  Holden Caulfield wanders around being disaffected and aimless; when he acts he often does the wrong thing.  Catch-22 is full of cowards, nitwits, and the like.  Yossarian refuses to fight, and the message of the book is, if anything, the benefit of running away.

But a couple of things occur.  Firstly, passive characters are often put into situations in which they have to act.  Bilbo and his dragon; Bertie Wooster and the threat of marriage.  The situation brings out dormant qualities.  Secondly, that action is often ethical or compassionate.  This is true of both the traditional hero and anti-hero.

Bond, for all of his shagging and kicking people in the face, is trying to save the world.  Holden Caulfield, despite his confusion, would like to save young people.  To act like a ‘catcher in the rye’ before they fall off the cliff into adulthood.  Yossarian’s refusal to fight is a defiance of the illogic of war.  Jack Reacher is trying to protect the weak by stamping on the face of the strong (and sleeping with the weak).

It is said that the theme of all Greek tragedy is, what shall I do?  In a way, the challenge to a passive character is more pronounced.  Bond starts with sex and violence and carries on from there.  What does it take to push someone from an accepting, fatalistic attitude to an active, defiant one?  When does it occur?  Why does it occur?  Who or what prompts it?  What does he consider ethical or fair?  It’s a question I’m considering the current novel that I’m writing.  A passive hero and an ethical challenge.

I should say that this little formula does not easily fit all leading men.  The deeper you go into literary fiction, the more likely you are to meet conflicted, confused, even unethical leading men.  Think Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Martin Amis.  Characters trying to find identity or purpose in a meaningless universe – very twentieth century.  If the character wants to be ethical there is a question of where they would start, or more often a deliberate attempt to kick against an accepted order of things.

But hey, maybe that’s for the next novel.

Character: The Nudge

According to New Scientist, in 1999 the authorities at Schliphol Airport in Amsterdam had a problem. One of the most expensive jobs was keeping the floor of the men’s toilets clean. Instead of posting polite signs reminding the users to pee straight, they etched a picture of a fly into each urinal. The cleaning bill fell by 80%.
It is what is known as a ‘nudge’ after Carl Sunstein’s book Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. A nudge is something that influences our behaviour or thinking without our being aware of it. Men pee straighter when they have something to aim at.
Writers often use nudges to suggest to the reader that they should feel one way or another about a character. Bertie Wooster, for example, is an over-privileged waster. Someone who, if he appeared on Made in Chelsea, would be the butt of the joke of even that bunch of top-draw bananas. So why do I like him? For a start he’s funny, but even more it’s because Jeeves likes him. Jeeves is from below stairs, he is wise, and has good judgement. If Jeeves likes him, so do I.
TV and film producers cast people with particular facial characteristics to influence our judgement. Writers use other tricks.