Michaeline: Likable characters

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Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet, Regency heroines

I think every writer struggles with the concept of “likable” characters, but the fact is that for most people, you get what you get. Your girls in the basement send someone up, and it’s up to you to work with them, and tweak or train them into characters who are likable, or at least interesting. If you can.

This has been on my mind lately because I just caught up with the “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” on YouTube. I loved the modern interpretation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and a combination of factors made it extremely watchable and fun. Wanting more, I continued on to “Emma Approved,” which takes Austen’s Emma out for a spin in the 21st century.

Rather famously, Austen was worried about Emma (the main character) and her likability factor. She called Emma “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I find that very true – Emma is a much harder book for me to get into because Emma is such a controlling, childish, unaware creature.

Interestingly enough, I think there are a lot of parallels between Emma and Elizabeth Bennet (Eliza Bennet is a character I like a lot, by the way). They are both wits, they have high opinions of themselves and their own opinions, and they are reasonably attractive and sociable. I think the difference is that Emma has the actual power, as the highest ranking member of her social circle, to make mistakes that are devastating to others, whereas Elizabeth’s mistakes and cutting wit aren’t as harmful. People can afford to ignore Elizabeth when she’s being cranky; they pay too much attention when Emma is having an off day.

On the other hand, Emma has a huge character arc, and Elizabeth’s character arc is more moderate.

Like her or hate her, Emma is a fascinating character, and her story has something to say to the human condition – just like her meta-cousin Elizabeth.

So, are you on team Emma, or team Lizzie? Or cheering in the stands for whoever happens to be doing the most interesting things at the moment? Thoughts?

16 thoughts on “Michaeline: Likable characters

  1. Team Lizzy, all the way, Michaeline. Very interesting that they’re both spirited, intelligent Austen heroines, but the subtle differences between them make them read so differently.

    Lizzy is one of my favorite heroines of all time; I find Emma so obnoxious that I never re-read her story. I think part of it is, as you say, their respective social situations. The Bennets have too many daughters and will be in dire straits when Mr Bennet passes away, so the girls must marry but they’re not great prospects. Lizzy is the second born, she’s not the pretty one, she’s the brainy, outspoken one, so her refusal to moderate her expectations is refreshing. Emma is the prettiest, richest, smartest, most powerful girl around so her actions make her appear spoiled, complacent and managing. The joke is in watching her get a reality check and I don’t find it amusing.

    Lizzy is generous, has a big heart and worries about her sisters but she just tries to nudge them on to the right road, or gives her father a gentle nudge. She has a great sense of humor but even though it can be waspish, it’s never catty or spiteful. Emma is definitely spiteful, humiliating a woman older, poorer and more stupid. Yes, she’s called to order by Mr Knightley, and yes, she resolves to reform, but the impression of a mean-spirited woman remains.

    I do find Clueless amusing, though, and maybe for a reader of Jane Austen’s era Emma would have had more of that silly rich girl comedy feel.

    • Ooooh, I completely missed that — what’s at stake for Emma? At first, almost nothing. Finally, love and marriage to the only man she finds compatible (which is not a small thing, but it’s not love and life and death of a way of life like the stakes in P&P). Maybe, just maybe, her whole estate will also be mismanaged by her father and other people if she disgusts Knightley enough. I think I’ve read the book only twice, and now I’m watching the YouTube videos, so I’m sure I’ve missed things.

      (-: I’ve got to put Clueless on my spring film festival list. I haven’t seen it yet, and I keep hearing about it.

  2. Emma over Lizzie any day for me, thank you.

    Lizzie is who she is, from beginning to end, and the only real discovery she seems to make in the course of P&P is that Pemberly would be a lovely place to live, and that she has been a complete idiot when it comes to Darcy. For all her wit, she always strikes me as somewhat passionless and extremely static.

    Emma brims over with her passion for life. This does mean that sometimes her temper will lash out in harsh inappropriate ways because her emotions are not well controlled- she is very immature at the beginning of the story. That immaturity also reveals itself in her conviction that she knows the solutions to everyone’s problems when that is clearly not the case. However, for all her mistakes (as you mentioned, magnified by her position in society) her heart is in the right place, and she desperately wants everyone to be happy. As well as being vibrant, Emma *grows*, really grows in this story. It’s more than just realizing she has been stupid, it is the beginnings of profound understanding. In twenty years she will be a responsible, caring woman who, while mortified by her behavior when she was young, has learned from it. And she will still be passionate and vibrant and not boring.

    Of course, I haven’t read either of these books in fifteen years at least, so maybe I am misremembering. 🙂

    • I re-read P&P about once a year, and I think about it every time I go to visit my mum – if it’s a nice day, we go walking in the grounds at Chatsworth (= Pemberley), and sometimes we go to the Rutland Arms in Bakewell, where Jane wrote part of the book. I haven’t read Emma in 20 years so maybe I’m not being fair. I do agree Emma gets a bigger arc and I like the idea of her growing into a responsible, caring woman.

      From memory, I didn’t want to spend time with the local community in Emma either. Harriet’s too dim-witted to be entertaining, the Eltons are vile, Frank Churchill’s a disgrace, Jane’s a martyr and Miss Bates is too annoying for words. If Emma continues to live in the same neighborhood and manages to grow up passionate, vibrant, and responsible it will be a miracle, or she’ll have to spend a significant amount of time loved-up with Mr Knightley 🙂

      • Hmmm, Mr. Knightly. Yes, he may be coloring my recollections. I liked him much better than Mr. Darcy, and I don’t remember that much about the rest of the community, so I think I’ll just bow to your much better informed self, Jilly. 🙂

        • The book we read depends so much on how old we are, too! I read Emma in my 20s, and then again in my late 30s or early 40s, I think. I actually came to like Frank and Jane. And Mr. Knightley is more socially adept than Mr. Darcy, but he’s also a bit of a lecturer. Sometimes a heroine needs a little bit of “Emma, you idiot!” but with my modern sensibilities, I’d rather have that come from a girlfriend or an aunt or a boss, and not a lover.

          It’s easy, once we get to a certain age, to forget that these heroines are so young! Both of them are just about 20. They are really both remarkably mature for 20-year-olds, I think. As a 40-year-old, I might make different choices. They are both coming-of-age stories.

        • Yeah, I haven’t read either of those books since before I had my daughter, and I refer to that time as “my previous life” it is so far from where I am now.

          I only remember that I thought Lizzy was boring, but that Emma seemed like she would make a great friend. I could imagine that Emma would be up for my kind of fun- I could picture her rollerblading on Venice Beach or juggling mangoes in Trader Joes or flirting with the guitar player at the fair or convincing all her adult friends to run around her yard with plastic easter baskets searching for eggs for prizes (all favorite occupations of my twenties… hmmm, maybe still), while I felt Lizzie would roll her eyes at such foolishness. Yes, maybe that’s it- Lizzie is a wit, but Emma is whimsical. Once again, I’m going on ooooold memories here, so I could be completely off base.

  3. Huh, that’s weird- why did my comment come up from my other WordPress account (it’s been sent to moderation)? It never has before here, and I haven’t changed anything, at least not that I know. Did you guys change something with how accounts appear in your blog settings, did WordPress upgrade in some way, or did I do something accidentally? I’ve manually changed it back, so I should show up as Jennifer O’Brien again.

      • Thanks! I’ve had that gravatar for years, but I still like it. I took the waterlily photo at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The beach photo in the Jennifer O’Brien gravatar was taken outside the Evanston Art Center where I often sit when I’m waiting for my daughter to finish up her pottery classes. That beach is adjacent to the property where I’ve set the imaginary B&B from my WIP, so it seemed appropriate.

        • FWIW, WordPress plays merry havoc with my gravatars. The blogs that show up with a black tool bar on my screen just about have to be under my professional gravatar, or else I get wonkiness across the board. I have no problems using my unprofessional gravatar over on Argh or Refab. And of course, if it’s a different registering system (like, say, Disqus), my professional gravatar is fine.

          Thanks for letting us know about the problem! I hope it’s resolved itself, since I see “O’Brien” on the later comments.

        • I went and fiddled with the settings, and it’s kind of a hot mess. Also, it switched out the waterlily photo altogether, but whatever.

  4. Oh, urgh! And my sympathies.

    Let us know if you keep having problems, and let me know if you find a solution, because I’ve given up on the personal/professional distinction, at least on WordPress. I’m thinking about getting a device dedicated to professional work, but I’d probably have to set up a whole new Duskova online presence because Duskova and my personal accounts are linked up on Gravatar. (And my teaching, writing and personal stuff are all mixed up over on Google and Friends.)

    This may be worth a few blog posts in the future — if I can figure out how to keep my personal and professional online presences separate!

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