One of the striking features of Dostoevsky’s work is how passionate and sometimes wild his characters are. His pages teem with greedy, ambitious, vile, and bacchanalian types; they are also incredibly vain, and paranoid about maintaining their dignity. Indeed what torments them all the more is this need for dignity despite the negating pull of their actions, actions that they are somehow unable to control. As Harold Rosenberg says in his introduction to The Idiot: “The Dostoevskian character cannot trust his feelings or his decisions; some aberrant impulse may cause him to act contrary to them.” The bulk of Dostoevsky’s voluminous works consist of large, garrulous parties and gatherings of just such characters, and these lead to impassioned outbursts and dramatic confrontations.
Why does he use such exaggerations? Because his supercharged characters, despite seeming unreal, are able convey the gamut of human emotions and thinking. Dostoevsky himself provides an answer in Part Four of The Idiot, when, for a few pages, he stops being the storyteller and instead muses on the novelist's biggest challenge: How is one to describe “ordinary” people in novels?
“In their novels and stories writers most often choose and present vividly and artistically social types which are extremely seldom encountered in real life, which are nevertheless more real than real life itself…”And for an even better answer, here’s Dostoevsky concisely expressing in a letter (written to somebody called Strachov), the central idea behind all of his art:
“…what is the novelist to do with absolutely ordinary people, and how can he present them to readers so that they are at all interesting? To leave them out of a story completely is not possible, since ordinary people are at every moment, by and large, the necessary links in the chain of human affairs; leaving them out therefore means to destroy credibility. To fill a novel entirely with types or, simply for the sake of interest, strange or unheard-of people, would be improbable and most likely not even interesting. In our opinion, the writer must try to find interesting and informative touches even among commonplace people.”
“I have my own idea about art, and it is this: What most people regard as fantastic and lacking in universality, I hold to be the most innate essence of truth.”