It is curious how boring perfectly good people are – fictional creations, who have only the purest motivations, who never spoil picnics with vicious sideswipes, as Austen’s Emma does.
Perfect people in Hollywood movies or in television series, are often laced with miniaturised flaws, never deep enough to threaten the whole. Some cute quirk or adorable neurosis is presented to us as evidence that a character is real and therefore loveable. Yet it doesn’t work.
In re-reading Jane Eyre what is blinding, is Bronte's sheer skill at creating a three-dimensional flawed personality, hot-headed, righteous and also right. When Jane fights back against the cruelty of her aunt, Mrs Reed, we feel with her, the pleasure in her triumph, the satisfaction in her vigour and also the joy in her finally telling the truth.
But Bronte examines a more complex confluence of feeling in the aftermath of Jane’s outburst.
Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.
When triumph settles after its first heady victory (that word ‘racy’ leaps out – the sexiness of righteous triumph over another person), it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. What a simple thing Bronte is saying, but how complex the register of emotions.
What makes Jane such an involving character is that she is self-pitying, melodramatic, loving, thoughtful, self-aware, and open to change, all at once. She is a person living at full emotional pitch. I can understand my teenage self identifying so passionately with her.
It is hard to create a truthful character, who can be mean-spirited or wrong but who can also hold onto the reader’s affection. I’m not talking about writing a baddie – I’m not much interested in that. But writing a truly nuanced person without authorial embarrassment or the need for oneself, as a writer, to be liked – casting aside the need to be somehow emotionally ‘right’, rather than human. It involves being in touch with one’s own envy, narcissism and dependence, without flinching. To write true characters, perhaps you have to be able to say ‘This is how I think we really are’ and hope that someone else feels the same.