How To Write A Classic

War and Peace.  Les Miserables.  The Count of Monte Cristo.  The Three Musketeers.  Hamlet.  The Last of the Mohicans.  All of these are classics, written in bygone ages for the people of bygone ages, and yet they still enjoy the same, or greater, popularity now.  The authors have been immortalized through these, their greatest works.  But why can we still read them now, when so much time has gone by since they were written?  Won’t they be outdated?  Won’t the language have evolved?

I’d love to write the next Les Miserables, but there are so many books out there.  How do you pierce the many layers of tiny, obscure titles with a 1500-page brick?  I’ll try to go through the classics I’ve read and find the big questions and the big answers on how to write a classic.

The first pattern I see is the dates.  All of the novels I listed in the first paragraph were written at least thirty years after their setting.  War and Peace was published in 1869, and it deals with the War of 1812.  Les Miserables is about the revolution of 1832, and it was published in 1862.  Romeo and Juliet was published in 1597 and is set in the 14th century (as far as I can tell, that is).  Novels about the present are difficult to immortalize because, after their first publication, they will never be read by audiences of the same time period.  The author expected the audience to know what he was talking about when he mentioned iPods and Cadillacs.  (You can see this in Rick Riordan’s books.)  But if the book was published later, the author would have to explain some of the lesser known objects, making it easier for readers centuries later.  Of course, the author can always mess with history a little bit.  The Man in the Iron Mask says that Louis XIV was one half of a set of identical twins, which was never the case.  If this were the only criterion for a classic, however, every historical fiction or fantasy would be an instant classic.

Therefore, we must look at plot elements.  In Romeo and Juliet, there is a potion that causes a sleep that looks like death.  In Macbeth, there are real live witches.  In Julius Caesar, there is a truthful soothsayer.  Obviously, Shakespeare likes to embellish upon reality.  But in most classics, fantasy elements are limited.  Why?  Because even fantasies can become outdated.  What was only imagined in times past is close to reality now.  Humans can fly.  The world is round.  The only reason I think Jules Verne’s books are still popular is that we haven’t managed to journey to the center of the earth.  Once we do, however, that book will be old news.

Also in this topic is the question of different worlds.  None of the books I’ve mentioned have been set in other worlds.  (Obviously, I don’t call the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings classics, since they haven’t been awesome for more than one century.)  Though The Man in the Iron Mask messed with history a little, it was the same world in which we now live.  Still, not every believable historical fiction will be a classic in centuries to come, so there must be more.

The next pattern is the representation of character.  Some classics, like War and Peace and Les Miserables, explore the depths of human character.  Others, like The Three Musketeers, simply portray the characters as they would appear in reality and go on with the story.  Nevertheless, characters are always accurate.  Dumas likes to joke about those flaws.  Victor Hugo tends to show them seriously.  However it’s accomplished, it is always there.  Most modern novels don’t manage this, but since humanity’s flaws haven’t changed much in the past thousands of years, they have the opportunity.  Also, classics never try to change the audience perception of a historical figure.  War and Peace contains a few scenes with Napoleon, but the author never delves into his character as he does with his fictional characters.  Thus, most historical fiction novels are disqualified.  Classics are about the main characters struggling through their circumstances, not about the historical giants creating those circumstances.  Everyone knows about Napoleon.  Not everyone knows how it was to live through Napoleon.

The last, hardest, and most important part of classics is the writing style.  No matter who writes them, classics are always beautifully written.  If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be classics.  Of course, you don’t have to copy the old, more formal writing style in order to have a classic– just write things clearly and elegantly in your own way.

The one modern book I’ve read that seems to fit all these qualifications is The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak.  I wouldn’t be surprised if people still read it three hundred years from now.

Of course, there is no formula for writing a classic, and I’m not sure I hit all the important points here.  Do you have anything to add?

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48 thoughts on “How To Write A Classic

  1. As far as I know, a “classic” novel or movie or play is something that can withstand the test of time. So not only is the plot excellent or the writing wonderful, but it also has an element of something that people everywhere in any era would be able to relate to. Thus the focus ob human behavior. As you said, human behavior has changed very little over the years. So I believe that a classic novel is one where the characterisation has a lot of emphasis. Though I may be wrong. Sherlock Holmes is considered by some as a classic but I’ve always thought that Holmes was a bit underdeveloped and so he came off not just as aloof but downright robotic.

    Anyway. Let’s not forget the business aspect either. Good publicity can go a long way in making a book memorable. Sad, but c’est la vie. (People aren’t going to forget Harry Potter in s hurry is all I’m saying.)

    Oh, and I love The Book Thief

    1. True, publicity can do wonders for a book’s popularity, but nevertheless, you want something that will last, not something that will die out once you stop paying for the advertisements. The best publicity comes from actual people recommending books to each other, which can’t be bought except through good writing and story.

      I hope Harry Potter never becomes a classic. I don’t think it will, though.

      1. I know! I like HP but it’s hardly classic material.

        …just noticed the typos in my previous comment…oops.

      2. Nah, don’t bother. I was typing through my phone. It was bound to happen. Thanks though.

      3. Especially if you’ve graduated from a Blackberry to an Android and you’re still trying to figure out the touch-screen stuff.

  2. Hmmm…that’s your favorite book, isn’t it, Liam?

    I think that makes sense. Can’t think of anything to add…_yet_. I may later. As of now…school…

      1. I don’t mean to intrude on your comment, I’m afraid that is exactly what I must do.

        Anyway, if the Book Thief is Liam’s favorite book, it would be quite appropriately so. The Book Thief is stupendous.

      2. Wanting to talk or join in is not a bad reason. And since you have given no rules against intrusion…

      3. Of dead authors: The Count of Monte Cristo, though it’s close between that, War and Peace, and Les Miserables. Of living authors: the one I haven’t written yet.

      4. I suspected Les-Mis might be named, though I thought you would name only one book.

      5. If an author can remain on my good lists even after having been dead, then their book is much, much better than any book I’ve read recently. Thus, two categories are necessary in order not to ignore one end or other of the rather extreme scale.

      6. Not sure how to reply. My favorite author is dead, but favorite book isn’t that old (compared to Les-Mis and other classics named in this post).

      7. Aaaaack! Robyn, how many times are you going to ask me that question? 😛 I don’t have a favorite book. I have way too many of them.

        But honestly, the book I read yesterday just landed pretty far up on that list: Glass Girl, by Laura Anderson Kurk (yes, the lady who posted on GTW yesterday). 🙂

  3. Have you read the Matched trilogy? It doesn’t seem to have too many of those qualities but I’m thinking it could be considered a classic like George Orwell’s 1984…Another quality I think some classics have is prophetic qualities–like 1984. It portrays a future that seems to be happening now, and Matched portrays a likely future for mankind. (Like I said, a different kind of classic than say, Les Mis. Think Narnia, 1984, LoTR, etc.)

    1. I wouldn’t count 1984 as a classic, actually. It was written a mere sixty-four years ago. It has not withstood the test of time, as defines a classic. So no, I don’t consider dystopian and futuristic novels to be classics. In fact, I doubt any dystopian novel from this century will be remembered in 2113. The problem, as I said, is that even our ideas of the future can quickly become dated.

  4. Question: Are there any “classics” that you read and you were like…. “what???” And you don’t understand why it became a classic??????? Just curious.

  5. Can’t believe I missed this post *sulks*

    Anyway, I don’t have much to add beyond embellishing on the universality aspect: these books are classics because they combine the interesting bits of history, which readers tend to like because it’s close enough to home while still being different and fascinating to learn about, while maintaining eternal examples of humanity; love, death, murder, and aversion to doing what we ought to do. Combine that with gorgeous writing style, occasionally some timeless humour (see Dumas), and you’ve got a book that has the best of being old and venerable, but also interesting and engaging. Books that go too far on the ‘literary’ side from a certain age will often become dated faster because of the language they use, as many of the more elborate phrases will die out and thus take off some of the book’s shine.

    1. Indeed. The emotions (funny how I’m using that word so much lately) of the book, while speaking of death, love, whatever, are always part of why a classic resonates so strongly with any given person.

  6. Not exactly a rule, but I always preferred to embellish fantastical ideas from the reality, not ground fantastical idea in reality.

    Latter: A person that finds they can read students minds to cheat on a test.
    Former: A student that wants to bring a giant dinosaur to school.

    The speculative element is always derived from near historical or present realities. I generally construct my dystopia based on this.

  7. This might just fall under what you were saying about plot elements, but I think what probably adds to it something that’s truly unique. Not just original (though that’s usually good), but something that can’t be copied over and over and over again until everyone is incredibly bored of it. I mean, like, Harry Potter and Twilight were kind of “original”, in a way, when they were written, but now, if you mention vampires or magical boarding schools, the first thing I think is, “Another one?” It kind of takes away from the original books. If someone reads all of the other vampire books and hasn’t yet read Twilight, then by the time they get to it, it feels dull and boring.

    1. Oh, of course. But can you imagine how many copycats seized on any of the classics we take for granted today? Think of Don Quixote. It wasn’t as if Cervantes just wrote it and was left alone because he was such a genius– I’m willing to bet every owner of a pen for miles started writing glorified Don Quixote fanfiction, which created the broad range of fiction we have today. Even though books are copied ad nauseam, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. It means they made a big splash, and although that doesn’t equate with being a classic, it means they were written well enough to be powerful.

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