Monday, January 24, 2011

You take the good, you take the bad...

The first time I attempted Sense and Sensibility, I threw it down after the first chapter and never picked it up again. Why? Because I positively despised Fanny Dashwood. I hated her so much that I skipped the first fifteen minutes of the film, just to avoid her.

I finally read the book this summer, and while I still detest Fanny, I now see she serves a purpose to the story. Money is a central theme to Sense and Sensibility--Jennifer Becton posted an excellent essay on the subject last week. In Fanny's grasping we see shades of Willoughby, who discarded the woman he loved in favor of one with money; in her snobbish disregard for the Dashwood sisters, her mother's rejection of Miss Steele is foretold.

As an author, Fanny is a reminder that strong characters are not necessarily good. It's easy to paint them black or white, but real people cannot be categorized so conveniently. Even the most virtuous of men will occasionally slip--a point which came home to me this week.

If money is at the center of Sense and Sensibility, honesty is at the center of His Good Opinion. Darcy sets that tone, just as Fanny Dashwood does. "Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence," he tells Elizabeth when she castigates him for his harsh words on her family. I took that quote and built his character around it.

Then I caught Darcy in a lie.

I'll be honest, my world tilted a bit. He may be proud, overbearing, and taciturn, but Darcy is honest. He prides himself on it; I count on it. I was caught in the classic battle between the personality and basic nature of the character and what the plot demanded.

This blog post on characterization reminded me that people are a mass of contradictions. We want to label our characters as smart, sweet, dull, or honest, but the truth is that even the smartest person will occasionally do something very dumb, sweet people can surprise you with a cutting remark, and those pillars of honesty sometimes lie. If we want our characters to be memorable, they have to be real. They have to make mistakes.

But I still hate Fanny Dashwood.