On Saturday, I purchased Charles Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield and couldn’t put it down all weekend. Dickens was a childhood favorite of mine, and Great Expectations was one of the most impactful books to my young consciousness. After college, though, I felt childish for picking him up again. Reading him again now I understand why.
Dickens feels magical, like a fantasy novel, like Robert Louis Stevenson. Good and evil saturate both the characters and his descriptions of the settings in his stories. Take his description of the home of the overwhelmingly good, Mr. Pegotty:
There was a black barge, or some other kind of superannuated boat, not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel sticking out of it for a chimney and smoking very cosily; but nothing else in the way of a habitation that was visible to me.
“That’s not it?” said I. “That ship-looking thing?”
“That’s it, Mas’r Davy,” returned Ham.
If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it.
Sounds like an adventure, doesn’t it? And Dickens continues to gush about living in the boat, despite the extremely cramped quarters and the fishy smell that permeates everything, saturating even the pores of their skin.
Now, check out this passage describing the boarding school run by the cruel crook, Mr. Creakle:
I gazed upon the schoolroom into which he took me, as the most forlorn and desolate place I had ever seen. I see it now. … Scraps of old copy-books and exercises litter the dirty floor. Some silkworms’ houses, made of the same materials, are scattered over the desks. Two miserable little white mice, left behind by their owner, are running up and down in a fusty castle made of pasteboard and wire, looking in all the corners with their red eyes for anything to eat. A bird, in a cage very little bigger than himself, makes a mournful rattle now and then in hopping on his perch, two inches high, or dropping from it; but neither sings nor chirps. There is a strange unwholesome smell upon the room, like mildewed corduroys, sweet apples wanting air, and rotten books.
It’s almost as if the classroom is possessed by evil. Decay is everywhere. Scavengers fill the place. The caged bird serves as an evil omen of how Copperfield will become trapped there.
However, it seems as if the settings are in fact manifestations of the morality of the characters who rule them. Mr. Pegotty, the owner of the boat house, is a kind, compassionate man who takes in orphans and widows even though he’s unmarried. If Mr. Pegotty was an evil man, the fishy smell would be overpowering, the quarters not just small but vice-like, and the boat house not an adventure but a a place of entrapment, like living on a prison ship.
The decaying school is run by Mr. Creakle, who beats the children with a ruler for imagined offenses, and seems to be in cahoots with Copperfield’s arch-nemesis, Mr. Murdstone. However, if Mr. Creakle were a good man, the messiness of the place would be overlooked as quickly as the smell of Pegotty’s fish. It would be a poor but comforting place, full of the warmth of compassion.
The settings are manifestations of the characters, and for your writing, this technique of shading your settings with the good or evil of those associated with them is something worth trying. Consider giving it a shot!
First, choose either a hero or villain from your work in progress. If you don’t have a work in progress, choose one of your favorite heroes or villains from literature.
Next, describe a setting connected to them. Shade your description based on the morality of the character you have chosen. If he or she is good, talk about how clean, bright, and charming his or her realm is. If he or she is evil, write about the decay, the horrid smell, and the feeling of entrapment in the place.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments.
And if you post, make sure to comment on a few other pieces.