A Muse on Character

Queen Desideria of Sweden – image courtesy of Wikipedia

As with many in our language, the word character can be interpreted in several ways and mean different things to different people.

For example: It may be used to describe someone with a distinctive individuality and/or eccentric personality.

Or it may be used to define the quality of a person’s moral fibre; the essence of an individual’s psychological make-up. People requiring a reference would naturally be hoping to be spoken of as being of good or strong character rather than bad or weak.

To a calligrapher or scribe it may mean one of a set of symbols used in a language.

To a writer it means a person or personality portrayed in a novel or drama. And in this case, developing a set of believable characters is everything. No time or energy is too much to spend on this essential building block.

However, the character of some of them, as in real life, can leave much to be desired.

Even one word can be enough to bring a character to life: Machiavellian, wolfish, foxy, warhorse, porcine, ox-like: all conjure up images that need no clarification.

Phrases such as the lift of an eyebrow, the quirk of a lip: all help to paint a picture of character (the character of the character, so to speak).

In real life there are people so evil that it takes your breath away and people so heroic and self-sacrificing that it is equally hard to comprehend. But most of us and our fictional characters fit somewhere along the spectrum of these two extremes: slightly flawed but lovable, just the same.

There are many such fictional characters and one I will always have a soft spot for is the Earl of St. Erth created by Georgette Heyer in her Regency romance The Quiet Gentleman.

Amongst the real characters of history, I am especially drawn to the gentle, tragic Earl of Derwentwater, whose only crime was loyalty; and vibrant and loving Katherine Swynford, both brought to life with amazing clarity by Anya Seton in her novels Devil Water and Katherine respectively.

Recently, I reread Désirée by Annemarie Selenko, the story of a real life heroine: Désirée Clary, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was loved by two of the most important statesmen of her day, finally becoming a queen: Desideria of Sweden.

She must have had plenty of character to have attracted the interest of an Emperor and a great General whom a country invited to be its King; and if you look at her portrait above you can see that she has it in spades.

Character and character: the one so forgettable without the other.