The Jane Fairfax Dilemma

I have a problem. And, as with so much in life, it’s a problem which brings Jane Austen to mind.

Fellow devotees of Miss Austen will know that Emma Woodhouse, heroine of the eponymous novel, just can’t bring herself to like Jane Fairfax. Jane is the niece of one of Emma’s neighbours and, despite the two girls being roughly the same age and Jane being intelligent, educated and otherwise the epitome of the suitable companion, Emma finds her – well, more than a bit annoying. The problem, we are told, is that she is too “reserved”. Emma can’t work out what she thinks about anything; she can’t confide in her; she can’t instruct her, or scold her, or laugh with her. In short, she can’t work out what makes her tick. As a result, she decides the less she has to do with her, the better.

"How was I to know you wanted the last sandwich!"

“How was I to know you wanted the last sandwich!”

Mid-way through plotting my second novel, I’ve had to conclude that my main character has more than a touch of the Janes. Whilst several of my minor dramatis personae have introduced themselves with unexpected enthusiasm, telling me all sorts of unimagined things about themselves, Lucy – or maybe Chloe (this woman is such an enigma, I can’t even work out what her name is) – is keeping resolutely shtum.

Of course, I know what happens to her – at least, the big stuff that forms the core of the plot. My problem is that I can’t work out what she thinks about it. And that means I don’t know how she reacts. Which is a bit of a problem when it comes to trying to tell a story.  It also means I’m finding myself coming over all Emma Woodhouse – I mean, I know Lucy’s a very private person and all, but surely she can tell me what she’s thinking?  I created her after all!  Doesn’t that entitle me to some kind of confidence?  Doesn’t she have any sense of gratitude?!

Quite apart from needing to understand her better to work out what she’d do in the different situations in which she’s going to be finding herself, I can’t help but feel I need to get to know Lucy if I’m going to be spending time with her. I mean, writing a novel takes a long time. Who wants to hang around with someone who never tells you anything about themselves? And I want the reader to sympathise with her – let’s face it, if she refuses to give much of a clue as to how she feels about anything, that’s going to be an uphill struggle.

In Emma, Emma and Jane do eventually become friends: Jane has a secret, you see, and when that secret is revealed Emma feels that she understands and can forgive her previous reticence; Jane, in turn, is freed from the restraint that left her unable to engage with Emma frankly and openly.

So what lessons are there here for Lucy and me?

Clearly this woman has a secret she isn’t telling.  I need to get her to open up.  I need to get her to trust me. The question is: how to do it?

I’ve already told her I know about her past. It didn’t help.  She just looked at me, as if saying, “You might think you know…”  So perhaps I’ll have to start small.  Maybe I can get her to tell me what her favourite film is, or whether she prefers tea or coffee, baths or showers, Fitzwilliam Darcy or Christian Grey.

Perhaps that will do the trick. But I can’t help thinking: isn’t it a shame you can’t just take your imaginary character to the pub?



21 thoughts on “The Jane Fairfax Dilemma

  1. vicbriggs

    Oh my world! I have one of those. Partly why I’m stumped with revision. Ok… maybe thinking this through will help. Very very long comment coming your way in a little while! Thank you so much for this post. Can’t tell you how timely it is.
    Warm regards,

      1. vicbriggs

        So pleased you liked it! It’s all due to you, you know. I’m loving this collaboration in trying to get our characters to talk. We’ll get there in the end, I’m sure of it.

      2. vicbriggs

        He’s done it. I told him he can do whatever feels right for him (within reason – not a murder mystery so I asked him to steer clear of anything too extreme) and he’s let me move the story forward. Much darker than I had anticipated, but it works. I’m so chuffed I could cry 🙂

      3. vicbriggs

        I sure will. I wonder whether Lucy might have a dark secret, something she is afraid of revealing because it would change your opinion of her. She may have changed since, attempted to make amends, but it is still a part of her and her reluctance may be due to a desire to protect that part of herself.
        That’s what I found to be the case with Bertie. I thought he was a bit of a Casanova, all lightness and out for a good time, but there is a much darker side to him. In my case, it was my resistance to that darkness that brought everything to a halt. I didn’t want to accept that it was ok for him to be more than he appeared.
        Do you think that may be the case for Lucy as well?

        Let me know if I guessed right about Lucy and whether she’s decided to bite the bullet and confess! Very curious to know how it goes.

        PS: Just finished another chapter. I’m almost afraid of the speed, but not complaining. Hope the next one goes ok: it’s a New Year’s party and I have to create the right atmosphere. Description is always something I struggle with, so this will probably take me a while.

      4. yakinamac Post author

        Sounds like it’s going brilliantly – really well done! Good luck with the party description – I know what you mean about that kind of thing taking time.

        I’ve had a bit of a mini break-through with Lucy, I think – and it sounds not dissimilar to yours with Bertie. It turns out that, rather than being the tough character I had her down as, she’s actually feeling pretty guilty about the thing she’s done. And that means she’s more vulnerable than she appeared at first – which is good, because it also makes me like her more. I don’t know where these characters of ours get off having hidden depths, but much happier now I’ve found Lucy’s!

        Sadly, in the meantime, I’ve had more suggestions from my agent on the rewrite for the first book, which means I’m going to have to put Lucy to one side again just as I was getting to know her. Just hoping she doesn’t go off in a flounce!

      5. vicbriggs

        I’m so happy that you had a breakthrough with Lucy! I’m sure that the little pause won’t make her go off in a flounce. Now that she’s confided in you she can’t take it back. That is brilliant news.

        Best of luck with the rewrite. Look forward to hearing more of your new story too.
        Warm regards,

      6. yakinamac Post author

        Thank you – that’s such a good idea! I have a list of questions for each of my characters, but I’d never thought of getting them to answer in their own voices. Will definitely give this a go! 🙂

      7. vicbriggs

        It’s an acting technique I learnt at a RADA course. It really helps to get into their shoes. I’ve been even changing seats when I was writing it and trying to emulate what body language he might use in answering each question. It sounds a little mad, but it does work. One of my newer readers thought that this was a real interview and confessed to being jealous if this is my job even part-time counts. Felt a little guilty, but hey! must’ve gotten it right so that’s reassuring 🙂

  2. sueslaght

    I could read your writing all day long. Perhaps taking her to the pub nails it….an imaginary day spent with you….errands, coffee shop and definitely the pub. Good luck!

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Thanks Sue – I only wish Lucy was as impressed..! If she doesn’t behave herself, I’m going to put her in counselling. We’ll see how she likes that!

  3. Pingback: Let me get into your head! Pretty please? | vic briggs

  4. jackiemallon

    Ha! A trip to the pub usually seals things, doesn’t it? I have been discussing this very topic with my writer husband recently: how to make his novel’s main character open up and let us in. I’m going to send this to him as you put it so well and much more charmingly than I do. He’ll relate and appreciate. Down the pub, indeed..!

  5. Miranda Stone

    I wrote a novel in which the main character didn’t want to reveal much of anything until I was about 20,000 words into the first draft. Needless to say, I wanted to give up on the story altogether at first, but I’m glad I didn’t. Maybe you could jump ahead in your story to a pivotal scene and write that, forcing your character to take action. Or you could try this questionnaire I found online for fictional characters:

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Thanks – really good to hear I’m not alone; and even better to hear that you overcame it and finished your novel. I like the idea of working on a pivotal scene – I might try that. And will take a look at the questionnaire – definitely think that Lucy and I need to get into some Q&A!


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