There are a number of ways a creator can let their audience know what a particular character is like. We’ll use Casanova as our example.
Firstly, there is what other characters say, the reliability of which the reader needs to evaluate depending upon the nature and circumstances of the character who is speaking and their motivation. We learn from de Bernis that Casanova is exceptionally intelligent and resourceful (although he is trying to sell an idea to Duverney). Madame de Pompadour tells us that he is a gifted mathematician and master of the cabbala (although she could only know this from second-hand). Madame de Boufflers reveals that he is a sensitive and considerate lover. Marie informs us that he an accomplished actor with a fantastic memory. The disembodied voice (Casanova’s ‘genius’) tells us that he is vain and a fraudster (the uncertainty surrounding who or what the voice represents and its mocking tone, however, generates a question mark over its trustworthiness). ‘Paul’ reports that he is an adventurer and philanderer. This all comes pretty early in the novel to give the audience a basis upon which to start judging him for themselves as the narrative unfolds (to confirm, reject or re-evaluate as they receive more information).
Secondly, there is what a character themselves says and how what they say relates to their particular context. The first extended exchange Casanova has is with Stefano in a wood. Until then any picture we have built up about him has come from other sources. In it he describes his sexual affairs and libertine excesses as nothing more than harmless games. He is dismissive of the dangers of getting involved with de Bernis and boasts about his escape from the prison of the Venetian inquisition. His own words paint a picture of a man who is reckless and arrogant. However, by this point the audience have been made aware of other aspects of his personality and in that context his comments take on the appearance of bravado behind which he is hiding anxieties and self-doubt. He reveals these anxieties later when Stefano is caring for him after his merciless reaction to being attacked by the Southerner and his men. In his conversation with the Southerner we discover that he is in some ways a deeply principled man and this is reinforced in his initial meeting with Gabrielle. Moreover, the language he uses to articulate his ideas is generally elegant, refined and ironic indicating that he is someone who is educated and sophisticated.
Thirdly, there is what the characters do and whether there are any inconsistencies in their behaviour that may reveal other aspects of their personality. Casanova demonstrates that he is a man of action: he breaks out of prison; he fights back against an ambush by the Southerner; and he captures Guillaime. Helping Gabrielle at great risk to himself and without any prospect of reward demonstrates his chivalry. The nature of his investigation into the Duverney plot demonstrates his ingenuity and shrewdness. His friendship with a man like Stefano is inconsistent with his outward show of elegance and sophistication, pointing either to a strong sense of loyalty and obligation (Stefano had saved his life sometime before) or some deeper inner conflict. His romp with three women early in the novel establishes his notorious promiscuity. We have also made use of flashbacks to give an insight into his experience and behaviour as a child, notably when he discovers his mother making love.
A fourth way of providing information about a character is through an authorial voice but this isn’t a path we’ve gone down.
‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is now freely available here.
Long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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