Beware Bland Characters


Bland characters are boring and forgettable – unless you are making a point!

You know the kind of physical descriptions you write when you are little? Children often describe faces in ways that are idealised and unoriginal. Eyes are blue, lips are red, hair is perfect. You get the idea. In my last blog on character, I suggested we need to invent quirky details if characters are to come to life, something Charles Dickens does so well.

But occasionally a writer we think would know better, gives us a very stereotypical portrait. Take Geoffrey Chaucer for example, in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. In his description of The Prioresse, a supposedly devout religious figure, we are told her nose is ‘tretys’ (straight), her eyes ‘greye as glas’, her mouth ‘ful small, and therto sofe and reed’, and that she had a ‘fair forheed.’ Surely Chaucer is guilty of a childlike portrait here? There is nothing in the description that is remarkable, in fact the Prioresse comes across as very bland. But hang on a minute, isn’t she a religious figure? Shouldn’t she be described in terms of her good works, or her self-denial, or her lack of vanity? Chaucer doesn’t give us any of that. Instead, her grey eyes and red mouth are more reminiscent of a romantic heroine. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps Chaucer is telling us something through this portrait. In medieval times, when Chaucer was writing, the ideal ‘courtly love’ lady did indeed have grey eyes and broad foreheads (Chaucer tells us the Prioresse’s is ‘almoost a spanne brood’). And in fact his very omission of any reference to her religious devotion suggests she wasn’t in fact very devout at all. So are the references to her idealised beauty Chaucer’s way of showing us that she is more interested in presenting herself as a romantic heroine than a true Christian?

Ah… so not bland at all! In fact, a seemingly innocuous description is an act of satire. It tells us a lot about the state of the church in Chaucer’s time, when nuns were more interested in their physical appearances than serving God.

So what can we learn from this? Readers like to work things out for themselves. If we provide them with gaps between what we say and what we mean, they will pick up on our deeper purposes. And then a bland description becomes a very telling one.