What can ol’ fuddy-duddies like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë teach us about writing successful modern fiction? Most of us think of the classics and groan over memories of boring high school textbooks. You may even be familiar with Mark Twain’s facetious (and rather ironic, considering his own status as a classic author) definition of a classic as a “book which people praise and don’t read.”
But here’s something else to consider: classics only reach classic status because they are riveting, revolutionary, or just plain entertaining enough to get millions of people, over many centuries, to praise them.
5 Surprising Writing Insights You Can Learn by Reading the ClassicsRemember: It’s Your Protagonist’s Story
Sometimes minor characters can steal our hearts and run away with our stories. But classic authors like Charlotte Brontë knew the story always belongs to the protagonist, not just in the beginning but all the way through.
In Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic), Brontë gives us one of the most cherished love stories of all time. With a hero like Edward Rochester galloping across her pages, it might have been tempting for her to have him take over the plot and swoop in to save Jane just when things looked their bleakest.
But before any story is a love story (or a crime story or an adventure story), it’s the protagonist’s story, and Brontë knew this. She never wavered from her focus on her protagonist. Jane doesn’t get rescued. She has to rescue herself. Indeed, she’s really the one who ends up rescuing Rochester in the end!
Have Something to Say
Many entertaining books have been forgotten for the simple reason that they were forgettable. Classics endure because they have something interesting and important to say about the world. Whether we agree with classic authors’ views (in fact, many classics made their initial splash because so many people disagreed with them), we still find these books timeless because of their bold insights and predictions about humanity.
I have to admit: I detested Faulkner while I was reading him (his books were part of my challenge to myself to read all the classics before I die—and his about killed me). His narrative style isn’t for the faint of heart, and I often found his characters morally abhorrent.
And yet—despite my general dislike and even his own obfuscating style—his stories have stuck with me more vividly than just about any other classic author I’ve pursued. If anything, his messages have grown clearer the farther I’ve gotten away from the actual reading experience. The man wasn’t just out to tell fun and fluffy stories. He had something to say, and because of that, people continue to listen.
Create Honest Characters—Main and Minor
Arguably, the single most important trait any character can have is honesty. And by that, we’re talking not just personal integrity, but overall realism. We’re talking characters who are more than one-sided clichés lying there on the page. These folks need to be vivid and true in every respect.
Perhaps no classic author was better at this than Charles Dickens. Every single character in his many works bursts off the page in a frenzy of color and motion. Some might argue his characters are painted so broadly they occasionally verge on the ridiculous (I would argue he intended them to be so). But there’s no denying that the likes of the slimy Uriah Heap—the forlorn street sweeper Jo—the amorous Flora Finching—or the misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge—have inspired the imaginations of countless readers through the ages.
Every time you introduce a new character, challenge yourself. How can you make this character fulfill every last bit of his potential? How can you defy reader expectations in a way that creates a satisfyingly original character? How can you bring this person to life in a way that is vibrantly realistic? Answer these questions with enough energy and precision, and you will end up with characters every bit as memorable as Dickens’s.
Tell It Like It Is—Even the Dark Parts
Authors who endure are authors who tell it like it is. They don’t soft-soap themes, characters, or life. Sometimes this means sharing joy and hope. But sometimes this also means sharing stories that take a hard look at the darker side of human nature. Not many of us read tragedies for sheer pleasure, but it’s no mistake that many of the most enduring stories in history are those that offer an astringent bite of reality.
Emily Brontë’s bizarre and beautiful Wuthering Heights is such a book. Acclaimed by many as one of the greatest stories ever written, this book was its author’s only contribution to literature before her death at the age of thirty. Upon its publication in 1847, it drew attention largely due to the scandal it created. Its themes of passion, vengeance, cruelty, and violence are startling even now.
Wuthering Heights works, not because it is shocking, but because it is authentic. Brontë wasn’t going for shock value. She was just telling her story as it needed to be told. She might have been tempted to tone down her often unlikable characters in order to make them more sympathetic to readers. But she never compromised. And that one secret, by itself, made her immortal.
Sparkle Your Wit
Finally, what discussion of the lessons to be learned from classic literature would be complete with at least one Austenian reference? Readers want reality. They want honesty. They want powerful themes and equally powerful characters to carry those themes. But what fun is all that stuff without a dazzling presentation?
Wit is always fashionable—whether it’s humorous, ironic, good-natured, or sarcastic. Readers thrill to stories that are not just good tales but well-told tales. And no one was better at bringing her stories to life with a sparkling dose of wit than was Jane Austen.
Hone both your authorial voice and your character’s individual voices. Language is your one and only tool for bringing your ideas to life. Even the best of imaginations will languish in solitude without the ability to properly transport images and ideas into the minds of readers.
Every book you read offers important lessons on honing your craft. Even the not-so-good books will provide opportunities to learn how not to do it. But nowhere will we find better examples of how to create enduring fiction than in the stalwart legacies of the authors who have gone before us and survived to tell their tales decades after their own deaths.
What about you? What are some of your favorite classics, and what have they taught you about writing?
Choose a classic novel and spend some time reading a few chapters. Make a list of everything you can learn from the author’s presentation. When you’re finished, spend at least fifteen minutes writing a scene that incorporates two or more of those lessons. Then, post your practice in the comments section!