What We Can Learn: Classics

Hey everyone! Today we’re talking about classics (be prepared for a small rant).

So I go to a classical school, which means, obviously, that we read a lot of classic books. I know that classics are not always everyone’s favorite books. They can be quite wordy, full of telling instead of showing, confusing, etc. Full of today’s “writing faux pas,” so to speak. So why are they considered classics? Why do we still read them today? Why are we subjected to them in school?

There are likely more reasons than just this. But in my opinion, it is because they display human nature in an intense form. They contain emotion, and even today, we can connect with them. Or in Italo Calvino’s opinion, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I think that is so true. So let’s look at a couple classics.

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Suffering. Injustice. Revolt. Resurrection. Guilt. Sacrificial Love. I hope that these simple words have made you think of specific people or feelings. These are big, broad topics, so even though A Tale of Two Cities was set around the time of the French revolution, they are still relevant today. We still see suffering and injustice. We still sacrifice for those that we love. Combined with sympathetic, memorable characters, they make for an amazing, classic story.

2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Corruption. Brainwashing Media. Destruction. Again, broad subjects. This story is about a society entirely brainwashed by media and obsessed with pleasure, where books are illegal. And though today books are, of course, legal, this story still conveys relevant elements of human nature. The love of anything pleasurable and the allure of technology. The tendency to crave the things that are taken away. Out of context, they don’t mean nearly as much. But applied to characters, you get a realistic, emotional sample of human nature.

There are many more examples, of course. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings just to name a few. So what can we writers learn from such stories?

1. Try using big ideas/themes/feelings. Think of some of the ones I mentioned above. Try to find something that fires you up, that evokes emotion in you. These are things that resonate within people. Things that we can identify with. I’m not saying to turn your story into a huge allegory or anything. But your characters are human, and they experience big human emotions (guilt, righteous anger, strong love, etc.).

2. Use these subjects and emotions alongside strong characters. Innocence, for example, is just an abstract term. But pair the quality of innocence with a character who embodies it, and you have something tangible, sympathetic, and emotional, like the character Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Or take righteous anger and give a character that trait. Show us a real person who has that emotion.

3. Apply conflict. In the example of Scout, her innocence doesn’t mean a lot if there is no conflict or tension. Threaten her innocence, and you have emotion. Or show us the character with righteous anger. Let us see her in tears over the oppressed people she longs to help but, for whatever reason, can’t. Use the story events and characters to display the big ideas.

So those are some of my ideas when it comes to classics. Emotion is a common factor here, I feel like. Emotion is so big to me in stories (I have cried over To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities). To be honest, I love stories that make me feel to that degree.

How do you all feel about classics? Anyone care to flail/cry with me over Sydney Carton and/or other characters and books L?