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 Won’t they be outdated?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 Because even fantasies can become outdated.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?