Writing Lessons from Les Mis: Characterization

We’ve been looking at Les Misérables to see what writings lessons we can glean from it. Last post, we looked at the Plotting and Sub-plotting, and this time, I want to look at the characters.

Hugo has an enormous cast of characters in this book, and honestly, there are times when even the most attentive readers can forget a few of them. So what is it that makes these characters, in general, so interesting? What makes them so likable to where their stories have survived all the adaptations that have been made of them?

Where the Characterization Excels:

  • Excellent Introductions. When we meet characters—main characters at least—we’re often shown them in a way we can admire and respect, pity and lament. We don’t generally meet them “at their worst.”  We meet Jean Valjean, not when he’s committing a crime and stealing from a boy, but when he’s desperate for a place to stay, when he’s just been welcomed and then gets turned out of an inn, just because he was a convict and his papers identify him as such. We meet Fantine, not when she’s become a horrible, wild-looking women of the streets, but when she’s in love, when she’s on the cusp of being abandoned by the man she loved, to where we see her trying to be like the other girls but failing because, unlike them, this was her first love and she really cared.

Hugo continues with this method the whole way through. We really get to know Éponine, not when she’s being mean and heartless to Cosette, but when she’s delivering letters and is trying to be more womanly and friendly to Marius. We get to know Marius when he’s trying to honor his father—not when he was too young to show such good sides of his character. And even Javert is shown as a character with a heart, a man who wishes himself to be dismissed from service because he accused a mayor and was wrong (or so he believes early on in the book). None of these characters are purely vile. None of them are purely selfish and heartless. Though the Thénadiers come close, we meet him when he’s saving a man’s life (inadvertently, but he’s still doing it), and the female Thénadier, for all her faults, is a good mother to her girls, and that’s how we meet her. (The only exception to this might be the various villains who enter the plot as Thénadiers co-conspirers, as Hugo seems to show them to us only once they’re past redemption, as it were, or Marius’ grandfather, who appears as a harsh man but becomes gentler over time—but in both cases, they don’t “carry the plot” on their own.)

  • Consistent Characterization. Thanks to the way the plotting is handled, the characters are constantly going in and out of each other’s lives, but they remain consistent. There aren’t usually moments where we say “This isn’t Marius in the least” or “Jean Valjean wouldn’t do that” (though that does occur at one point, at least…more on that later).
  • Using Those We Care About. This is a fabulous way to help us care for a large cast of people. If we care about someone, and they care about someone else, it helps make us care about this someone else, too. Take the gardener who helps rescue Jean Valjean and Cosette. At one point, he’s just an old man whom Jean Valjean helped, but when he begins to help Jean Valjean, he becomes a man of interest. Jean Valjean trusts him to help him, and suddenly, a scene where the old gardener plays a major role (in the planning for Jean Valjean’s “death but not burial”) becomes of great interest.

Similarly, there are times where we care about Cosette, not because she’s a particularly fascinating character, but because Jean Valjean cares about her so much. The same occurs with Monsieur Mabeuf, who is just a minor character but gains significance when he tells Marius about his father and, later, when he joins the barricade. We care about Marius, who cares about his father and the barricade, and so we come to care for Mabeuf.

  • Characters We Can Relate To. This isn’t something that I need, as a reader, in physical traits all the time—every character doesn’t have to be tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, for example, but there should be traits we can understand, moments where we see emotions we’ve experienced as well. Hugo does a nice job with this, letting us see these characters and, when indicating a change in them, showing that change by small steps instead of just saying, “Suddenly, Jean Valjean was different.” We get to see their struggles, their longings, and their hopes, and that keeps them relatable, no matter how different from us they are.


Where the Characterization Struggles:

  • Out-of-Character speeches. As noted in the post on plot, at one point, Jean Valjean runs into an associate of Thénadier’s who tries to steal his wallet. He catches the man in the act, and rather than giving him a short warning to encourage him to stop his life of crime, he goes on and on for pages, sounding more like the author than himself and indicating things about himself that I doubt he’d reveal to a stranger, no matter how much he wanted to help him, as it could help bring the police back on his trail.
  • Female Characterization. I’m not one of those people who has to have a woman wielding a sword in every book, but I feel that Hugo could’ve created some more sympathetic or admirable female characters. We have Fantine, who gives up everything for her child, but after her, we lose the heroic capabilities of women. Cosette is all goodness without having a great deal of perspicacity or sense, and Éponine, Thénadier’s daughter, comes across as wild to the point of savagery at times and a good bit selfish (the musical is a great example on what the author could’ve done to make her more heroic, where she follows Marius to the barricade to save him rather than luring him there so she and he can be “united in death”).

Of course, as noted in the plot post, this book isn’t about women. It’s about three men (Jean Valjean, Marius, and Thénadier) and their reactions to goodness, as personified by Cosette, but it’d have been nice for the women to be more interesting, to get more character arc. We don’t get to see them change, save for Fantine as she becomes more desperate for money, but even that isn’t truly a change in her character, a growth or a fall—just a financial necessity. Similarly, Éponine “changes” when her parents lose their public house, and she begins to care about how she looks a little in response to loving Marius, but we don’t really get to see it or experience it. It just happens and is noted and then the author moves on to the next point of character growth in the lives of the men he’s writing about.

So there you are! Four points to emulate (or at least consider) and two to avoid.

Happy Writing!

Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren

Image by hotblack, Creative Commons

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