What Dickens Can Teach Us About Complex Characters

In Our Mutual Friend , Charles Dickens’s final completed novel, he presents for us one of his most comprehensive and well-rounded tales. Herein is all the darkness of Hard Times, the cynicism of Martin Chuzzlewit, but also the optimism and hopefulness of David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby. G.K. Chesterton wrote of Our Mutual Friend that it “marks a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’s life.”

In it, Dickens introduced the dark tale of a murdered heir and the unexpected turn of events that results when his body is fished from the Thames by unsavory “waterside character” Gaffer Hexam and his beautiful daughter Lizzie. The overarching greed of mankind, both the unabashed grasping of lowlife grubbers and the sophisticated cultivating of social climbers, runs rampant when a sketchy will leaves the entirety of the murdered man’s fortune to two kindly and ridiculous servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. As the “Golden Dustman” and his wife rise to wealth and power, they bring with them the victim’s would-be fiancée—the beautiful and mercenary Bella Wilfer—and an earnest stranger—John Rokesmith—who pledges himself as secretary to the beleaguered Mr. Wilfer.

Overflowing with subplots (including that of the nouveau riche Mr. and Mrs. Veneerings, naively determined to leave their mark on high society; the mismatched and conniving newlyweds Albert and Sophronia Lammle; the scheming Silas Wegg, hired by Mr. Boffin to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone, the two unworthy young men who seek the favor of the lovely and modest Lizzie Hexam, and about whom I will have more to say in a bit), Our Mutual Friend claims for itself a place among the most complex of Dickens’s works—and at the same time one of the simplest. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in his characters.

Why write complex characters?

As a writer, to strive for and achieve complex characters–both sympathetic and repulsive–is one of the highest marks of success. Without character, story is little more than a fixed narrative, a colorless journey from A to B. Without characters of complexity, a story is nothing more than a farce, a gaudy stereotype. And without characters of realistic complexity, a story lowers itself to the realm of the ridiculous and the pointless.

Although what Dickens offers us in Our Mutual Friend does at times dip into the unrealistic (such as when he asks readers to believe that the ingenuous Mr. Boffin is capable of sustaining a lengthy charade of miserliness), he has also given to classic literature several wonderfully complete characters.

The three that particularly stand out to me are Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone—the two men in love with Gaffer Hexam’s daughter Lizzie—and Lizzie’s young friend and protector, the crippled Jennie Wren.

Character studies #1-2: Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone

Dickens—whose characters, although not always black and white, almost always give to the reader an immediate presupposition of their alignment in the story (good guy or bad guy)—bestows upon his readers a special treat in the creation of Wrayburn and Headstone. Both men are attracted to Lizzie Hexam’s beauty, both men are selfish in their treatment of her (Wrayburn toys with her without ever intending to marry her; Headstone pursues her obsessively, even after she refuses his hand). But each man presents a complicated personality that leaves the reader wondering, Do I like this man or not?

Wrayburn is careless and indolent, telling his friend Mortimer Lightwood that he is undecided as to whether he will respond honorably to Lizzie Hexam or not. Upon being spurned, Headstone lashes out in jealous violence, swearing to Lizzie that he will destroy Wrayburn before that gentleman gains the opportunity to disgrace her.

Both also present their sympathetic sides: Wrayburn’s kindness to Lizzie in comforting her after her father’s death and in providing her the opportunity to educate herself reveals a better nature lurking beneath his ennui. He charms all those who know him with his jovial and playful antics, and he is deeply loved by his friend and partner, Mortimer Lightwood. In itself, perhaps, the love and attachment of the honorable Lightwood does more to win over the reader’s affections than any particular act of Wrayburn’s. For the writer, it is an interesting concept: If a character can be loved by another character, he will, at the very least, be found sympathetic by the reader.

Bradley Headstone, on the other hand, initially presents the aura of respectability. As the headmaster of the reputable school attended by Lizzie’s younger brother Charley, he presents every indication of being a good and upright man, right down to his “decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck.” But from the beginning, the reader also glimpses the man’s inflexibility. Although he genuinely wishes to raise Lizzie to the honorable estate of marriage, he never once considers her own feelings in the matter. And when he realizes he has a rival in Eugene Wrayburn—a man who does even trouble himself to reach Headstone’s level of decency and respectability—the schoolmaster is driven into a state of insane rage.

He is never a likable character, and yet the reader is still able to maintain sympathy toward him. While Wrayburn’s intentions toward Lizzie remain ambiguous even to himself, Headstone never intends anything but propriety in his attentions to her. He is, at least initially, a more upright man than the cavalier Wrayburn, and when he is spurned in favor of such a man, he is understandably offended.

Headstone presents a fine archetypal villain: never likable, always understandable, and usually, even in his darkest moments, ever so slightly sympathetic.

Character study #3: Jennie Wren

Finally, we come to Jennie Wren, the young, deformed spitfire who, I personally feel, is the finest character in the book. A decidedly minor character, Jennie transforms her every scene with keen insight and acerbic wit. Dickens, with his perceptive eye for the grotesque and his fine sensibility for the fantastic, transformed the pathetic figure of an alcoholic’s crippled daughter into a captivating and indomitable young woman.

The bare fact that her “back’s so bad and [her] legs are so queer” is hardly enough to align her in the reader’s affections. But add to that her determination to conquer life despite her handicaps (and their inevitable affect on other people, her peers in particular), her incisive wit, and her undeniable intelligence—and she presents a formidable scene-stealer. To quote novelist James Scott Bell, she posses the three necessities of a great character, “grit, wit, and ‘it’,” the latter being a certain indefinable charisma.

Altogether, these three characters, along with an accompanying host of Dickens’s trademark buffoons and archetypes, bring his final entrée into the literary world to a level of sophistication not found in most of his earlier works. As we seek to write complex characters of equal realism and interest, we could do much worse than to study a master like Dickens at work.

Tell me your opinion: Who is the most complex character in your work-in-progress? What makes him so?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I’m not really into Dickens, but it sounds interesting

  2. Dickens is definitely worth reading, in my opinion. Even if his stories aren’t your cup of tea, he’s a master of so many areas of the craft. Dombey & Son is my personal favorite of his stories.

  3. Ruth Fanshaw says

    The only Dickens book I’ve read so far was “A Tale of Two Cities.” I was very impressed to discover that he lived up to the hype. 😀 Should probably read him some more. 🙂

    In answer to your question at the end, I’ve been told that my character Rick is very complex.

    He’s essentially a selfish man, and romantically pursues our heroine because she presents a “challenge.” But then we discover how he got to be the way he is, and why he always feels that the has something to prove to the world.

    During the course of the story, Rick develops a more heroic side – but is he doing these things because they’re the right thing to do, because he cares about his friends, or simply because he enjoys the adventure?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I adore Dickens. He’s easily my favorite of the classic authors. Dombey & Son is my favorite. If you haven’t seen it, I also highly recommend the BBC’s adaptation of Little Dorrit.

      • Ruth Fanshaw says

        Right-o, will put those two on my “To Read” list. 🙂 Haven’t seen the adaptation you speak of, but will look out for it. 🙂

      • Dickens is my favorite too! After reading all his major works, this remains a favorite, only behind David Copperfield. Thanks for reintroducing this often overlooked classic!
        Side note: the character “Sloppy” is so endearingly portrayed in the BBC movie version of Our Mutual Friend that I still smile when I see that promo picture of him on the cover you posted! Engaging story, beautifully presented characters, time well spent….

  4. Elle Dechene says

    What a great article, and of course you chose a Dickens classic to discuss complex characters. One of my favorite Dickens novels is Bleakhouse, a tour de force that brought about significant change to the Chancery Courts, while telling beautiful stories. It can be enjoyed at so many levels, precisely because of the rich characters, major and minor.

    I’ve discovered, on reading your post, the one of my secondary characters is much like Bradley Headstone, although in depraved female form. Many thanks for that!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dickens is probably my favorite classic author, and Bleak House is definitely one of my favorites of his books.

  5. Hi! I linked back to this awesome article in my latest post, hope you don’t mind!

  6. I saved this article to read when you first published it, but just got around to reading it today. Great article! Mr. Dickens is possibly my favorite author and definitely the one that has inspired me the most. And thanks for the reminder about depth of character – it was very timely. *This* is what the beta readers for my next book are talking about. So, thanks! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That was a long wait! :p Dickens is my all-time favorite classic author. Nobody does it like him!

  7. Matheus Vieira says

    And so a legend was born. I had to search and read your first article and know how everything started. Definitely it didn’t start here. You probably had a long long looong way before this first post and the decision of writing this first text. I’m unenployed, so I spend so much time reading your content and feeding my brain with warm and healthy thoughts because of the things you share with us. It’s like having a conversation with a friend that I never had. Here in Brazil there so few translations of Mr. Dickens’ books. I only had the chance to read Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities and some short stories here and there. I still don’t have the skill to read a full Dickens book in full english. Something that I love of his style is the ability of working with plural emotions in the same context. Taking Oliver Twist, for example, I know some people that think it has a happy ending, but I never thought it that way. Everything worked out greatly for Oliver, but if we think about the whole context of the story, it reminds us of how chaotic and unfair the world is. Of course that for Mr. Dickens he had a clear idea and suggested why things happened the way they happened, and he was obviously denouncing that through his stories. It makes me think that not only peple, but the places in his stories could be considered characters.

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