And why it rocks.
Uh… I mean, ‘And what it shows about setting up characters like Dickens does.’
Whatever. It rocks.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is an interesting book to become popular these days. In a time when crackling-paced young adult type books are the norm, this plodding 308,000+ word epic gained a fair bit of popularity. (Now, I know this was all several years ago, but I just read it so I’m still catching up).
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has been compared to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle (as well as the honorary, baffling Harry Potter comparison, because wizards?). I don’t personally see much of Doyle in the writing, except for the London setting, but Austen and Dickens are both prevalent.
Susanna Clarke shows Jane Austen’s dry wit throughout, but it’s her Charles Dickens plotting I want to highlight.
Many heftier classical books (like Dickens) don’t feel the need to introduce all the main characters in the beginning (compare that to nowadays, where you ‘have’ to). In JS & MrN we don’t properly meet Strange until a quarter way through the book (remember, it’s almost 800 pages). In fact, we don’t even get Norrell’s point of view until chapter four.
This doesn’t matter, though. Most readers won’t get confused about the main characters, because they already know who to watch for. In many books, the audience learns that by the first characters introduced. This leads to pesky rules about first chapters and points of view. But in JS & MrN, there are other indicators than the initial point of view. If the name of the book doesn’t tip everyone off, the briefest description of it should.
The minor and secondary characters are set up uniquely (for this age) as well, and this is where I see the most Dickens-like plotting.
Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot, two of the minor characters, are introduced prominently and early. They are the closest to point of view characters as there are for the first three chapters. After that, though, they disappear for a significant portion of the book. Then whenever Clarke needs someone to interrupt Strange’s early magic or run a madhouse, she has two unemployed magicians to utilize.
Like with Dickens’ Noah Claypole (Oliver Twist), Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot are free to wander into the narrative when needed and drop back when not. All three characters rarely interacted with the main ones, but show what goes on outside of the main characters’ realm of understanding. They’re very useful.
Those characters start out prominent and then dwindle to minor. Dickens’ and Clarke’s secondary characters, though, start out minor and grow to prominent.
Stephen Black, one of the most important characters, isn’t introduced until chapter fifteen. He’s originally a side mention, periodically appearing and growing in importance until his essential role in the climax. To a smaller extent, the vagabond Vinculus does this as well.
Nancy, from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, is introduced much the same way. This is a great way to handle characters that will be important later, but not at the moment. Make them a familiar face to your world, so when they’re needed, they’re ready.
These techniques work because there’s so much room in Clarke’s novel. In a shorter book, it’s much harder to significantly grow or decrease a character’s presence. That being said, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proves it’s possible to publish a debut novel paced in a more classical style.
Do you know of any other books like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?