My family and I went to see Les Misérables the day after Christmas. My dad said, “It was probably the best film I’ve ever seen,” and while I may not go that far, it certainly had me (and three-quarters of the theater) dripping with tears more than once.
I want to write a story like Les Misérables. Not a musical, but a story so powerful, so captivating, that it could move people in the same way.
If you’d like to write a story as powerful as Les Misérables, I’ve put together this list of five observations about what made the story so powerful, and how writers can emulate it.
1. Test Transformation
In the first third of the story, Jean Val Jean has a dramatic transformation. He changes from the good but angry and vengeful criminal to a servant of others and of God.
The rest of the film is a test of that transformation. Will he live for his selfish desires or will he live for the good of others and his own soul? Will he stay transformed or will he go back to his old self?
The challenge for writers: How can you create a dramatic transformation in your main character? And how you test your character’s transformation again and again throughout the story?
2. Be Historic
The film is set in the midst of grand events that happened about thirty years before the novel’s publication, notably the June Rebellion in 1832 France. The novel is even more ambitious, giving a detailed (and rather long winded, if memory serves) account of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
The challenge for writers: How can you set your story in the middle of great historic events?
3. Have a Big Cast
While most films have one, maybe two, point of view characters, there are about six point of view characters in Les Misérables. Needless to say, that’s a big cast, and while it’s incredibly challenging to characterize this large of many characters, it gives the story a degree of depth and flourish. Les Misérables feels less like the story of a single man and more the story of an age.
The challenge for writers: How can you involve more characters into your story?
4. Show What Characters Want
Donald Miller says the definition of a story is a character who wants something (of value) and is willing to undergo conflict to get it.” And the reason why the film is able to have so many point of view characters is because of the incredibly efficient way it shows what each character wants (by the way, this is easier to do in a musical, I think).
- Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous.
- Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean.
- Cosette wants to be loved by a family.
- Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution (these two desires come into conflict beautifully).
- Éponine wants Marius.
- The Thénardiers want money (and to get it by the sleaziest ways possible).
The challenge for writers: How can you show each character’s desire clearly?
5. Sacrifice Everything
Victor Frankle says:
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
It seems like the task Victor Hugo originally set out to was to bring meaning to the lives of the suffering, the miserables. He says, through his story, that even the wretches have something important to offer, even the miserables can live lives full of meaning.
Jean Valjean awes me. He is willing to give up everything for the sake of others. His life, and this story, is a powerful testimony to the potential of humans for love.
The challenge for writers: How can your main character sacrifice herself for the good of others?
What did you love about Les Misérables? How can writers emulate the story?
For fifteen minutes, write a story in a historical setting where your main character makes a sacrifice for another. Feel free to steal from Les Misérables as much as you need to.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice here in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.
Vive la France!