Updated: Jun 9, 2021
“To Elizabeth it appeared, that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit, or finer success.” – Pride and Prejudice
Recently, I took a writing class centered around Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. At the risk of alienating readers, I have to be honest: I’ve spent most of my life loathing this book. Pride and Prejudice has a cult following among writers. Literary chicks fangirl over Mr. Darcy the way teenagers worship Harry Styles and Justin Bieber.
They can quote the book’s key passages from memory. One of my friends even has a Jane Austen action figure and multiple copies of the book in different editions. Meanwhile, I just never got it. Maybe it was the multitude of lengthy party scenes. I mean, I never even went to prom because I hated forced socializing that much, so why would I want to read an entire book about dancing and drama?
That changed, though, when I read the book from a writerly perspective. While I’ll never be a Jane Austen fangirl, I must admit that what she accomplishes with Pride & Prejudice is astonishing. The book’s genius comes down to the role the reader plays in the story. The narrator enlists us as participants in the saga of the Darcys and the Bennets, asking us to invoke our best judgment in assessing the character of the players. When we guess the nature of each character correctly, we feel a certain sense of gratification. But when we are incorrect in our assessment, we feel the same shock that the characters do upon their own realization of who the character in question really is. This is critical for a book where all the characters are so stuck in their own motives and goals (i.e. pride) that they are too quick to make judgments of others in service to their motives (i.e. prejudice). Pride and Prejudice is a book where nothing is as it seems. The charming, witty gentleman all the Bennet daughters fawn over at the ball ends up being a trickster and a liar, while the aloof, rude man in the corner has a good heart that is obscured by his poor social skills. The genius of Jane Austen is that audience participation is a crucial part of the story. We judge the players in the story based on their words and actions just as the characters do.
That brings me to the role of family in the story and what Austen has to teach us about writing family dynamics. Family stories are messy. They are full of conflict, skeletons in the closet, loyalties, rivalries, and all kinds of drama. And if you think your family is exempt, you’re either lying or just not very observant. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, good writing keeps it real, which means the messiness is presented intact. It’s the driving force behind realistic, believable characters… ...which means that family messiness also drives the plot. Let’s take a look and see how Jane Austen does it. Forewarning: if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice or think you might want to, there may be some spoilers afoot. With that said, let’s take a look at the Bennets.
Meet The Parents
It’s appropriate that Austen chooses to open the book with a “conversation” between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I use quotation marks because it’s really not much of an exchange—it’s more of a monologue from Mrs. Bennet with Mr. Bennet as an unwilling participant. He clearly could give a darn about who is renting Netherfield and who the Bingleys are, but knows the wife isn’t going to let him out of this one. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet is an explosive, histrionic personality who thrives on attention and is obsessed with finding rich husbands for her daughters.
Truthfully, upon reading the book this go-around, I kept picturing her as Harriet Olsen from the TV version of Little House on the Prairie—her husband is so thoroughly henpecked that he knows there’s really no point in voicing his opinion on anything. Mrs. Bennet is going to do what she wants regardless of his thoughts, so why bother?
The contrast between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is striking, and while their marriage operates in the background of the main action, the tension between them fuels the opinions of other characters toward the Bennets as a unit. Mr. Darcy even directly blames Mrs. Bennet for the family’s dysfunction in his infamous letter to Elizabeth, saying, “The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally by your father.” Ouch.
But it isn’t just Mrs. Bennet. As a result of her total control over the household, Mr. Bennet totally checks out and abdicates his duties as a husband.
This conflict of roles and personality boils in the background for the entire story and is the book’s proverbial Chekov’s gun—Mr. Bennet’s apathy is largely responsible for the disastrous action Lydia takes later in the book.
When writing marital relationships, consider how the different personalities in the marriage affect not just each other, but the dynamic between their children and the decisions they make. Dysfunctional behavior comes from somewhere, and frequently, it can be traced by to Mom and Dad. Is this a factor in the character you are currently creating? Which brings us to…
When writing about families with several children, it’s easy for one or two to take center stage while the others disappear into the background. Although Pride and Prejudice primarily focuses on Elizabeth and Jane (and, to an extent, Lydia), this doesn’t happen. All five daughters are crafted with unique personalities and interests, for better or worse. Elizabeth is the smart, witty one. Jane is the most beautiful and the kindest. Lydia is stubborn, rebellious, and flighty. Catherine is gullible and boy crazy. Mary is a misanthrope who hides behind her intellect. In other words, Elizabeth and Jane are the only two daughters who (mostly) have it together, and they aren’t without their own faults either. As Mr. Darcy alludes to in the quote above, the clash of personalities between the sisters drives the story forward as much as the Bennets’ unbalanced marriage. The total lack of discipline the three youngest daughters exhibit is the result of Mr. Bennet’s disinterest and Mrs. Bennet’s tunnel vision on getting the girls married. She’s so zeroed in on the end goal that she doesn’t realize how dangerously close her daughters are to sabotaging it…until Lydia nearly does. So much of the action in the book is centered on how the members of this extremely screwed up family relate to each, the behaviors they engage in, and the decisions they make as a result. It affects the way the men in the story look at them, how their extended family interacts with them, and shapes the contempt and judgment that gets in the way of Jane and Elizabeth developing meaningful relationships with others. In other words…it’s a perfect model for how writers can create family drama and conflict in their own work.
Be on the lookout for characters who are mere cardboard cutouts. Even if they won’t be playing a major role in the story, they still need to be recognizably distinct from each other. So if reading Pride and Prejudice turns you way off, I get it. But if you really want to expand your arsenal of tools for portraying families in your writing, Jane Austen gives a master class on how to do it. What about you? What are some books with memorable families that have impacted your own work? Comment below with your thoughts. Also, don’t forget to grab a copy of my free Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, which contains writing prompts, activities, worksheets, templates, and more to help you develop your characters and story.