Writer's Tip: The bildungsroman
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
The debut of the newest adaptation of Austen's Persuasion has me reeling. It's my favourite Austen novel and I watched the film in a kind of stupor. Unlike the movie's depiction of the heroine (Anne Elliot), it was not a drunken stupor - it was mostly confusion. This movie version of my favourite Regency novel didn't work at all - but why? As I said to @janeaustenrunsmylife on Instagram, I don't understand how the screenplay ended up so thin, when the source material is so rich.
I'm aware my opinion isn't definitive (nor should it be), but it wasn't the modernisation that disappointed me in this adaptation. The millenial Austen takes were charming in parts, though it's been done better elsewhere. The 1990s film Clueless comes to mind, and the first Bridget Jones movie. Deborah Ross in The Spectator seems to share my disappointment:
"Here, it's not the modern vernacular with its references to 'self-care' and 'playlists' and 'being fashion forward' that sinks things but the woeful misunderstanding of characters and their purpose."
I agree with Ms Ross; the characters depicted in this film did not show why they acted the way they did nor why I, as a viewer, should care. Two major plotlines from the book were left out of the film, removing motivations for several characters - including the heroine. The plot of the story was thinned like watery broth, until there wasn't any substance to the character journeys at all, nor any reason for me to continue watching this film. (I did though, so I could write this post, and learn from the varied ways stories are told these days.) The character arcs were absent in this version of a story I - and many readers - know rather well. Without the bildungsroman for at least the main protagonist, the story flatlines. So, what is this magic ingredient?
From the German words bildung ('education' or 'forming') and roman ('novel'), the term describes a tale focusing on the psychological and moral growth of the hero/heroine, where character change is important. In the case of the romance novel, character growth is vital. Unlike mysteries or thrillers, romance novels are foremost about people learning to know each other, and themselves, better. They are character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven (though the best stories in my opinion, offer both forms of narrative drive.)
The character’s personal evolution leads to love for the hero and/or heroine. It might lead elsewhere for secondary and tertiary characters, but the bildungsroman describes a journey that’s fundamental for the main characters (at least). The protagonists evolve with their stories and earn their happy endings.
Constructing the bildungsroman (aka a protagonist's purpose):
Austen's stories do not 'waste' characters. In this case, cutting out a major secondary personality altered the trajectory of the movie’s story significantly. I note that a tertiary character was omitted from Emma Thompson's screenplay for Sense & Sensibility (and her attendant plotlines excised) but her absence wasn't pivotal to the bildungsroman of the heroine. That was not the case in this version of a tale where I know these nuances of characterisation exist, and this is why the film proved unsatisfying for me.
In Austen's novel, the character of Mrs Smith plays a vital role in advancing the story because she advances the heroine's bildungsroman. As an ailing widow, this character serves several useful plot functions. One of the most important, is that she bridges Anne Elliot's past and present, leading her towards her happier future. She also assists the heroine to resolve an imminent concern that could separate Anne from the hero. The other, more obvious way in which Mrs Smith advances the heroine's journey (and the overall story), is by filling in the missing pieces of another character's past: Anne's alternative suitor, Mr Elliot. Leaving Mrs Smith out of the film damaged the overall narrative irreparably. Imagine Pride & Prejudice without Lydia, or without Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. The story would lack the richness that has kept Austen's novels popular for over 200 years.
The character's personal journey is what delivers momentum to a character-driven story. If there's a character in the work who doesn't advance the bildungsroman - either for themselves or another character of equal or greater weight - then the question becomes, what is the purpose of including them?
I once had a writing coach point out that three of my secondary and tertiary characters performed similar story functions. Did I need them all, or could they be rolled into one secondary personality? Of course they could. In highschool I was told Dickens's Bleak House had over 96 primary characters - and I've never read that book. It sounds exhausting and I am a reader who loves intricate plots. That said, if all your characters advance your story then by all means, show the reader who they are. It's better to have a lot of momentum than none - because as this film reminded me, not showing the reader any character growth stalls a story until it feels pointless to follow it.
Even the best writing grows stale without forward momentum and in a romance novel, momentum comes from the bildungsroman.