There are three kinds of characters in a Dickens novel: Caricatures, Dull Paragons, and Other.
We might as well get the Caricatures out of the way first, because the things I have to say about them are the things least likely to be original observations. The Caricatures are what Dickens is remembered for. Dickens came up with the damnedest names for his people. Mention a “Dickensian name” and anybody will know what you mean, whether they’ve read him or not. The Caricatures’ names are the most Dickensian of all: Blimber, Pipchin, Bagstock, MacStinger, Cuttle.
Caricatures have handles: single traits that define their entire being. Usually the handle is a verbal tic, like Captain Cuttle’s “overhaul the book it’s in, and thereof make a note,” but it might also be a visual aid, like Mr. Carker’s artificially white teeth. Either way, the thing will come up pretty much every time these guys come on stage. Sometimes you get a bit sick of their handles, to the point where you almost sympathize with Carker when he tells Captain Cuttle “To have the goodness to walk off, if you please… and to carry your jargon somewhere else.” But they’re there for a reason.
The Caricatures aren’t the central characters. Almost all of them spend chapters at a time offstage. Which is not a problem if you’ve got a whole thousand-page brick of Dombey and Son sitting in your lap. It’s a problem when you’re getting three or four chapters a month, and trying to keep track of three dozen minor characters, and, owing to the fact that you’re a nineteenth century fishmonger or something, you haven’t got a Dombeypedia website on which to look up the references, the way you do with Battlestar Galactica. Actually, as a nineteenth-century fishmonger you probably haven’t got Battlestar Galactica either. But you see the point. Dickens’s grotesques aren’t just an authorial tic. They’re mnemonics; a solution to the problem of tracking a big cast over the course of a year. When a guy you haven’t seen in months shows up, you’re more likely to remember “the amateur cello player” than “Mr. Morfin, who has the office next to Carker’s.”
The Dull Paragons are the Caricatures’ exact opposite. I’ll cover them in another post. (As I said, I’m hoping it will be easier to dash off a lot of little mediocre posts than one big one.)