We all want to create or experience characters that come off the page, don’t we. Portability is the phenomenon by which fictional characters manage to exist outside the text of their original literary setting. Freed and animated by public imagination they no longer need their authors to create stories and settings. They walk amongst us and are especially popular on the telly around Christmas and New Year. Dickens was the master at creating portable characters; his most famous examples being Scrooge, Fagin, Miss Havisham, Mr Micawber and Bill Sikes to name but a few.
Deerstalkers and all that
Sherlock Holmes has had so many spin-offs and incumbents it’s hard to remember them all. When I worked at an Art Supplies shop on Baker Street in the eighties, tourists would wander into the shop daily asking for Sherlock Holmes’ address. It seemed churlish to say he was just a fictional character and hadn’t actually lived anywhere, so I always directed them over the road to 221B which is now a museum dedicated to the world-famous detective!
Recently ITV breathed new life into ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ He (or they) has been made considerably sexier in order to appeal to the YA audience who have been weaned on the Twilight series. Fan-fiction is another way of expressing our love of portable characters. One of my favourite examples of fan-fiction is ‘Wide Sargasso Sea‘ by Jean Rhys. This prequel of Jane Eyre shows us how the mad woman trapped in the attic at Thornfield Hall came to be mad in the first place. At a recent production of Jane Eyre, live-streamed from the Old Vic, Berthe Mason was re-imagined yet again, this time as an opera Diva who appeared in a flame-red dress and sang the musical score for the key scenes on stage. This didn’t work for me; I think the character of Berthe Mason has to represent danger of violence and fear of madness otherwise the novel loses much of its tension.
Imperfections Create Sticky Characters
So how do we create portable characters in our writing? I guess if I had the answer to that I would be signing a six-figure book deal but closer observation tells me they can be basically good or evil but we identify with them because of their flawed humanity. Would we have remembered Scrooge so well if he hadn’t been mean? Would Holmes be so appealing if he was polite and nice to everyone? Inspector Morse was a troubled loner. Wouldn’t we have warmed to him much less if he had been happily married and secure? We can identify with animals/fantasy beings too. Think of fun-loving but incompetent Baloo in ‘Jungle Book,’ mad but affable Toad in ‘Wind in the Willows’ or oafish but loveable Shrek in his eponymous book.
Who are you coming as?
So let’s imagine we are having a New Year’s bash and you are going to dress up as your favourite portable character. Remember that animals and fantasy beings can also exist outside the pages of a novel and as we are having a virtual party you are not bound by the practicality of finding a good costume! I’ve decided to come as Eliza Doolittle so excuse me while I pretend to be posh and practise pronouncing my haitches. Who are you going to come as? See you near the booze and grub, I mean champagne and canapés…