5 Insightful Things a Writer Can Learn from 5 Timeless Classics

Today’s guest post is by Ethan Miller.

When does one call oneself a writer?

Some might say the title of writer should be reserved only to those who have their names printed on the cover of a book. Some others might consider themselves writers when they write something of great importance—something that they are proud of.

If you ask me, anyone who spends hours honing their writing skills through routine practice is a writer. Anyone who looks for ways to constantly improve their writing prowess deserves to be respected as a writer.

While I do not have my name printed on the spine of a book yet, I practice writing routinely and perpetually look for ways to become a better writer.

I found that reading literature written by renowned authors and playwrights is one such way to develop my craft as a writer. Reading classics can help you break the shackles of traditional story beats and inspire you to make brave choices as a writer. The voracious reader in me leapt with joy when I discovered that immersive reading can enhance my writing skills.

In this post, I would like to share some of my writing takeaways from reading timeless classics. To put it simply, I just want to stress the significance of reading the works of great writers to sharpen your skills as a writer.

Here are 5 inspiring things I learned from 5 classics:

1. Don’t be afraid to write unlikable central characters: We tend to look for good in people. Readers root for characters who are morally unshakable, strong-willed, or funny at the very least. J. D. Salinger rewrote the conventions of writing endearing central characters by creating an unlikable protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield is immature, unstable, unpredictable, and downright irreverent and indifferent to things happening around him for most of the novel. He is everything a typical “likable” protagonist is not, but readers still resonate with his character as he depicts the reality of many young boys and girls in this materialistic postmodern world. Salinger lets the reader walk a mile in Caulfield’s shoes and gain some insight into his troubled psyche. The Catcher in the Rye taught me to let go of the ideal protagonist and let my central characters breathe as real people should.

2. Explore the whole truth by showcasing two sides of the same coin: Every story has a hero and a villain. And sometimes they are the same person. All you need to do is look at things from a different perspective. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the lines between the good and the evil are blurred as readers get a glimpse of both sides of the same story.

At first glance, you sympathize with Victor Frankenstein as the monster he created has wreaked havoc into his life. But when you see things from Frankenstein’s monster’s perspective, you understand the feeling of abandonment, isolation, and anger of those ostracized by the society. The empathy you feel for the monster is what makes this novel a horror classic. My biggest takeaway from Frankenstein is that a writer needs to uncover the whole truth and never write from a biased perspective.

3. Social commentary is not an afterthought but the crux of a story: In my initial writing endeavors, I always found my characters lacking an emotional depth or the plot to be unidimensional. I started looking for ways to infuse my stories with social commentary by forcefully adding a few nuances here and there.

Needless to say, it never turned out well, and it forced me to throw many potential stories down the drain.  And then I read Animal Farm. George Orwell’s dystopian short novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the society of farm animals rebelling against humans.

It seems ludicrous to write a serious piece of fiction about talking farm animals, but it turned out to be a masterstroke, as Orwell’s political allegory appealed to readers. His social commentary on idealism, welfare, power, and injustice worked mainly because it was not an afterthought tossed into the story to add “depth” or ”layers.” Orwell’s social commentary was at the front and center of the story, driving the narrative forward. As a writer, I learned to create a story that originates from my social and political beliefs and not the other way around.

4. A good writer has an open mind and is never indifferent to others’ views: We live in the era of social media where we go to great lengths to find those who conform with our biases. A difference of opinion is just not acceptable anymore. Amicable discussions have been replaced by heated debates.

Writing in these times can be a stressful experience, as a writer is not ready to even listen to a different point of view, let alone constructive criticism. I read Fahrenheit 451 when I was going through a phase when criticism would anger me, and I would find faults in others’ opinions. And then something changed.

I resonated with Guy Montag, and his character arc taught me to always keep an open mind as a writer. From being indifferent toward those who hoarded books and literature against the law to actually fighting for his intellectual freedom, Guy Montag’s transformation struck a chord with me. It taught me to keep an open mind as a writer and be receptive to opinions that did not match with mine.

5. There is a method to the madness: Quirky characters are a lot of fun. They have their peculiar traits, they are unpredictable, and they can put a new spin to any given situation. Writing quirky characters is a double-edged sword. They can make the proceedings exciting but can also let the plot meander into sidetracks. It was only after reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet that I discovered there is a method to the madness of eccentric characters.

Hamlet might come across as unhinged in the play, but there was always a plan in the back of his mind.

I am not implying that quirkiness should be feigned or put on by characters. To put it simply, a writer should know why a character behaves in a peculiar manner. Writers should know the backstory of eccentric characters so that they can reign in the craziness when the story starts to slip away.                                                                                                                                                   

These are some of the writing lessons that I grasped by reading and rereading classics in the last couple of years. As I continue to read and write regularly, I hope to learn more nuances as a writer and enrich my writing with gems passed on by prolific writers of the past.

You can do the same!

Share in the comments the #1 classic novel you’ve read that influences the way you write your stories.

Featured Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.

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  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was the book for me. The dialogue -most often stems from a real nuanced mind – is very well crafted. I wish I could write like Harper. Such the best storyteller!

  2. For me, Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was the perfect book. The dialogue, which often reflects a nuanced perspective, is expertly crafted. I aspire to write like Harper, who is truly a master storyteller!

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