Saturday, October 13, 2012

Using Classics to Deepen our Fiction

As I wrote in my last post, Writing lessons learned from A LESSON BEFORE DYING, I absolutely loved that book. I'd never even heard of it until my son was assigned to read it through school.

I was working on a revision at the time. My main character was a sophomore in high school, just like my son. I saw an opportunity to refer to a classic, and thought it would enrich my story. I was tempted to just refer to the book, but then I thought if I'm going to refer to a classic, I should read it. And wow, I'm so glad I did.

Referring to classics is not new, of course. In my post Writing lessons learned from THE PULL OF GRAVITY, I mentioned how the author, Gae Polisner, threaded in details of "Of Mice and Men." It added a cool element to the story, and hopefully encouraged teen readers to pick up a copy. Even "50 Shades of Grey" referred to a classic book, although I can't remember the title. I was a bit distracted ;)

Here are some ways in which I hope A LESSON BEFORE DYING enriched my story:

  • Main characters look beyond themselves--sometimes our characters see only what's in front of them. Their lives, their problems, their happiness. When real and fictional people read classics, they realize the world is bigger than their own sphere. It sometimes allows them to think deeper. Using classics in our fiction offers an opportunity for our characters to grow. I had my character read the book as a school assignment, and then she related some pieces of it to her own life.
  • Relatable conflicts--even though our characters, our worlds, and our story circumstances are different, there are plenty of similarities between classics and our world today. Betrayal, revenge, love, fear. Seeing the bigger picture helps. Even if our character is afraid of public speaking, like mine is, if she reads a story like "A Lesson Before Dying" she may realize there are worse things in life than speaking before a live audience (although people like me may see it as a sort of death!)
  • Relatable emotions--frustration, helplessness, sadness, fury...these are common emotions in fiction, whether it's new or from a different generation. If our character resolves to make things better, she can think back to her favorite characters, and how they found the strength to carry on.
In "A Lesson Before Dying," one of the characters said, "We're all pieces of drifting wood until we decide to become something better." I'd like to think that classics can make our stories better.

What's your opinion on this subject? Have you written or read fiction that refers to a classic? Did it strengthen the story or distract from it? Do you like reading classics, or are they too slow for this day and age?


  1. Referring to one in my stories would be odd!, although referencing the storyline would work.
    Sorry, not a fan of the classics. A couple authors I like, but the rest just moves to slow for me.

  2. I have not referred to classics in anything I've written since most of my work is fantasy/paranormal. But you've given my some food for thought. Thanks :)

    Oh, and I do like the classics, some better than others - Jane Austin, Dickens, James Fenmore Cooper, and George McDonald for example.

  3. I try to roll in a classic every third book I read. The use of language and tolerance of the "literary meander" seem to be lost arts. I'm reading Les Miserables right now - better than chocolate.

  4. I think I'll be needing to do this a bit in this year's NaNo novel. My MC will be getting through year 1 of university. I'm going to use my own essays and stuff from first year, which I still have 12 years later, to plot her way through. ;) Should be fun.

  5. I like that quote: "We're all floating pieces of drift wood until we decide to become something better." Classics can teach us a lot sometimes. I plan to read more of them in the future.

  6. I think these references, when done well, help deepen the story and can help the reader understand the character on another level. If it's just tossed in, though, the reference can be distracting. And I just added A LESSON BEFORE DYING to my tbr list.

  7. Twilight is the only one I can recall offhand, where she used Wuthering Heights & Romeo and Juliet, I believe. Seems righ since she was lit major.

  8. Hmm... I've never referenced a classic, although I've had classics in mind when I've written many times. I should probably just throw them in there, yes? :D

    These are great points as always. Thanks, Julie! Hope you're well. <3

  9. My son, 17, who used to be an avid two-book-a-week reader when he was younger but not since HS, is reading Lesson for English his senior year. He LOVES the book so much -- has declared it his favorite of all time, making me feel the need to read it. I never have. Look forward to reading your story and how you incorporate it!


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