Why great classical texts aren’t just a good read, they’re good research: How to Write Better Characters.

A few weeks ago I turned the last page of 1984 by George Orwell and placed the book back on my nightstand. I rolled over, closed my eyes and tried to slip peacefully into sleep.

I lasted all of 10 minutes before I sprang back up, grabbed my phone, and wrote down the name of all the Great classics that I hadn’t read yet.

Some of these titles included The Handmaid’s Tale, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and If on a Winter’s Night Traveller.

After voraciously eating these books throughout the last couple of weeks I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t just something that could benefit me, but also others, for two reasons.

  1. The themes and characters have reminded me how impacting reading can be
  2. It has improved my writing

To go through these I’ll discuss two of the four books I mentioned earlier.

The Handmaid’s Tale and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are two books with totally different atmospheres.. Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece falls into the category of speculative fiction and throws her character into a post-apocalyptic world where women are conditioned and forced into bearing children for the rich. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fits into multiple categories but is ultimately a narrative about psyche, exploring the insanity of a character in the sixties through the use of magic realism. Both books tell the story in first person, and the themes that they cover are not so different. What will a person to do survive? Whether in a strictly enforced community regime or a mental hospital, both books explore what it means to be human, and what it looks like when their own humanity its stripped from them.

I could explore the similarities and differences between these books for days. The central theme of any fantastic book is how far people will go to protect their own selves, even if it means putting others at risk, or learning to fade away into the background so that the strong don’t notice how weak they are. Whatever way their characters choose to manage their survival, both books take almost inhuman decisions and position you, the reader, to sympathise with them, teaching you hard truths about extreme situations in life.

After powering through these books, I decided to see how my writing would go with all of these different styles bumping around in my head. What I found was that my characters were more in depth. They may have turned out a little darker, sure, and I may have found myself throwing magic realism left, right and centre, but overall my characters faced real “problems”… their own minds and morals. My characters haven’t had real problems before, and I found myself giving them little quirks and phrases that were truly their own, watching them come to life and struggle in situations that, whilst outlandish, made them more real. People who read what I wrote said that they found the characters the best part of the stories. Suddenly my characters transformed from being thin and 2D, into real people who opened up the darkest parts of themselves. After all, life is dark sometimes, why shouldn’t your characters explore a bit of that?

The Classics reminded me that power is not in the story, it’s in the characters. And whilst most tips will tell you to write your characters better, it’s a good idea to revisit some of the best books ever written to see how the greats did it. Get involved with the characters you are reading, pick their minds throughout the story and breakdown how they react. You will come away knowing how other people’s characters react, as well as how to create better characters for yourself.

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