Writers of historical fiction are often concerned with the relationships between servants and masters (see this post) because your rank was extremely important in previous centuries. This picture above expresses it well – the servant sees a lot of her mistress’s back because she is always behind her, and this gives her a particular view of the world. In previous centuries, laws such as the ‘sumptuary’ laws about what you were permitted to wear applied to people of different classes, and unlike today, not everyone could vote or influence the decisions of governing bodies. So historical novelists seek to convey the era and the status of their characters by their behaviour towards each other. A rounded character is a person who fits their milieu and changes their behaviour according to the situation. A cardboard character never changes or adapts and is always the same.
I know this seems obvious, but it is also not as simple as that. Because how you write the status of a character in a novel will denotes the person’s strength. A decisive maid with a strong purpose might develop a higher status (to the reader) than a vacillating and weak mistress, although she in turn might have to concede status to a master who is ‘in control’ of his household (and more importantly, himself.)
In Wuthering Heights for example, Catherine falls in love with Heathcliff, who has a lower status, because he was found on the streets of Liverpool and taken in as a child by her father. But Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton instead, a man of higher social status than Heathcliff. After Mr. Earnshaw dies, his resentful son Hindley humiliates Heathcliff and treats him as a servant. The status is reversed when Heathcliff’s humiliation inspires him to seek revenge. Heathcliff becomes of higher status in the reader’s eyes because of his strength of purpose and intention.
A person loses status when he expresses emotion without self-control (cries, gasps, screams etc). A calm and controlled antagonist is always stronger and more threatening than a villain who curses, shouts and threatens. There is something too about endurance – naturally we have to push our characters through life-threatening ordeals, but their capacity to endure them, makes for a strong character. A silent, listening character is actually ‘bigger’ than a character who has lost his temper and his self-control.
Above, the mistress is not pleased when the servant apes her dress sense – because it confuses the order of rank. Status can be shown through body language and this is really effective if you want a person of lower status to come up in the estimation of the reader. Characters who slump, cringe, fidget or babble, are seen as weaker than those who look you straight in the eye, raise the chin in defiance, stand up tall, and walk and talk without hurry. So be careful if your protagonist cries or shouts; it will weaken them in the reader’s eyes.
So on one of my passes through my manuscript I like to analyse the status of each of the main characters. I check the person reacts differently to those of higher or lower status. Perhaps they might be kind and considerate to a servant, but the servant is often still, in their eyes, a servant. However, compassion and kindness raise the character’s status in the reader’s eyes.
In a moment of intense emotion, a person might deliberately be outspoken to a person of superior rank, but probably only then. So arguments between characters of differing rank must take this into account. The universal entitlement to express your own opinion (free speech whoever you are) is a modern sensibility.
In addition, if I’m looking at a main character I like to make sure they don’t lower their staus with the reader through indecision, lack of control, or lack of compassion.
Further Reading: Status, rank and class in Jane Austen’s novels
Posts so far on Editing Historical Fiction:
Pictures all from Wikipedia