Tools of Characterization
Everyone reacts differently to the same thing
Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of examples to keep you happy. Jump to Book One, Chapter Five when the gang is holed up at Brideshead for the holiday and Sebastian gets drunk alone in his room. Julia, who certainly never loves her brother the way Charles does, remarks, "How very peculiar! What a bore he is!" She adds that Charles "must deal with him," as "it’s no business of [hers]." Cordelia, who is a child and doesn’t understand the severity of the problem, simply giggles and recites the famous headline, "Marquis’s Son Unused to Wine." Brideshead is as unfazed as his sister by Sebastian’s clearly burgeoning alcoholism, remarking in an "odd, impersonal way" that it was an "extraordinary time" to drink and that "you can’t stop people if they want to get drunk." On the other hand, Charles’s concern for his friend is made clear by his concern and his request to everyone around him to help.
For another example, look at Book Two, Chapter Four when Charles readies for his divorce from Celia. Mulcaster is as cavalier as ever, remarking to the man leaving his sister that he "always had a soft spot for Julia" himself. Charles’s father disregards his son’s happiness entirely, claiming that "if [he] couldn’t be happy with [Celia], why on earth should [he] expect to be happy with anyone else?" He takes the whole thing lightly and even advises Charles to "give up the whole idea." Rex is as selfish as ever; he doesn’t care that Julia is stifled and unhappy, he just wants her to stay in the marriage because times are bad politically, socially, and financially. Of course, good old Nanny Hawkins, who loves from a haze of oblivion, says: "Well, dear, I hope it’s all for the best."
Defining the Negative
We found a particularly interesting "characterization" moment at the very start of Book One, Chapter Five, right when Charles meets Lady Marchmain for the first time. Until now, we’ve heard only rumors and speculation about this woman, mostly from Anthony Blanche and of course from Sebastian himself. But now we’re ready for Charles’s big first impression. And what do we get? A full page description of Mr. Samgrass, a comparatively minor character. What gives? Well, AFTER characterizing Samgrass, the narrative reads: "He was with Lady Marchmain when I first met them, and I thought then that she could not have found a greater contrast to herself than this intellectual-on-the-make, nor a better foil to her own charm." So while the narrative doesn’t directly characterize Sebastian’s mother, it indirectly characterizes her by defining the man that Charles identifies as her complete opposite.
Hear it from other characters
Why should narrator Charles have to do all the characterization when the other characters do it for him? Anthony certainly does plenty of telling himself, namely in Chapter Two when he calls Julia "a fiend – a passionless, acquisitive, intriguing, ruthless killer," describes Lord Marchmain as "handsome, a magnifico, a voluptuary, Byronic, bored, infectiously slothful" and Brideshead as "archaic." Cara later provides Charles (and of course the reader) with a slew of information regarding both Lord Marchmain (in particular his relationship with his wife) and Sebastian (in particular his alcoholism). It is Julia who provides the vital piece of information on Rex, that "he isn’t a real person at all, […] simply isn’t there," and surprisingly enough Celia who delivers the very important line, "Charles lives for one thing – Beauty."
Incredibly Telling Singular Lines
Sometimes a well-placed one-liner is all you need. For example…
This line expresses Lady Marchmain’s manipulative cunning: "One was never summoned for a little talk, or consciously led to it; it merely happened, when she wished to speak intimately, that one found oneself alone with her."
Rex Mottram may be helpful, but he’s too self-congratulatory to be liked. After he helps the guys out of jail for the night, this line is a solo paragraph: "It was plain that he rejoiced in his efficiency." And also, "In his kindest moments Rex displayed a kind of hectoring zeal as if he were thrusting a vacuum cleaner on an unwilling housewife."
Samgrass is...just…plain…dislikable: "[He had] the general appearance of being too often bathed" and "he was someone of almost everyone's who possessed anything to attract him."
Celia’s wife, despite treating Charles with all the kindness in the world, is impossible to side with: "My wife was adept in achieving such small advantages, first impressing the impressionable with her chic and my celebrity and, superiority once firmly established, changing quickly to a pose of almost flirtatious affability." When they are plied with gifts after the storm on the Atlantic, she says, "How sweet people are," and Charles remarks that she "speaks as though the gale were a private misfortune of her own which the world in its love was condoling." This remark not only characterizes Celia, but Charles’s feelings towards her (hint: it’s not a good feeling).