Today I finished my first book of the year: Emma, by Jane Austen. An oldie but goodie.
However, it took a second book that I just began reading today (Write Away by Elizabeth George) to remind me why Jane Austen rocks, even for someone who has been dead for...well, for quite a while.
In the first chapter of George's book she discusses why character is story. Her argument is that you must know your characters and what makes them tick before you can tell a decent story. Do you know their motivations? Their drives? She emphasizes her argument with a list of characters that you remember long after you put the book down. A couple of Austen's characters are mentioned and it made me think automatically of the book I'd just put down.
Every character in Emma has their own motivation for doing what they do.
Emma: Match-makes because she is bored and needs to feel useful to her friends...it's really the only way to pass her time, until she realizes that real happiness is right in front of her.
Mr. Knightley: Lectures and pesters Emma because he loves her. His 'odd' behavior towards several of the characters is obviously a jealous reaction.
Mr. Churchill: Secretly engaged to Miss Fairfax and must keep the secret or lose his fortune and any hope of a future with her.
Miss Fairfax: Reserved behavior in order to protect her secret engagement...anger at Churchill for not understanding in some cases.
Harriet Smith: Just wants someone (anyone!) to love her...
Mr. Woodhouse: Refuses parties of pleasure out of concern for their health...nothing malignant in his personality, just overly bossy concern.
And that's just the tip of the ice burg. Now throw all these characters into one room together and let them interact. There's the story. Austen is so astute--she knew each motive for each character and did not reveal anything until it came to a crisis. I think that's part of what makes her writing still so interesting today. Her people are recognizable. In every flaw, in every argument, in every misunderstanding, it is very easy for the reader to see real people...people that we know.
I think this is what Elizabeth George was getting at in her chapter about character. You can't just let the characters meander around on stage and then stumble on something cool unless you know what they're about. It's less about the ideas in the novel and more about the people. We don't read to be taught. We read to be entertained. And people are always the most fascinating form of entertainment.