Modeling Your Novel on a Classic

shutterstock_189453926A great source of inspiration for me has always been looking at the classics. And I’m not alone. How many times have familiar storylines crept in to popular works of fiction? The best authors take certain elements from classics and do something so new that many readers don’t notice the references to the original.

I loved how Hugh Howey used elements of Romeo and Juliet in his Silo series. It was a completely original twist on Shakespeare’s classic. Howey used the device of two lovers who come from completely different worlds that are bitterly opposed to each other, but his characters were completely his own. Lukas stands in for Romeo, and while he shares Romeo’s dreaminess and romanticism, is also fiercely intelligent and loyal. Even better, Juliette is a far more compelling Juliet, taking her destiny and those of her people in her hands and leading them to their salvation. By the time I finished Howey’s books, I decided I liked his characters even better than Shakespeare’s originals.

Other authors take the reverse tactic, and choose classic characters and place them in a new setting. One of my favorite recent finds is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. This is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy series that takes characters from classic fairytales and gives them an extreme makeover. The first book in the series is a loose take on Cinderella. Meyer’s Cinder has a heart of gold at her core, just like her inspiration, but she is a cyborg who helps her prince charming to end a plague that is ravaging the population.

So what have I taken away from those who are borrowing from the greats?

Don’t make your adaptation overly faithful to the original.
It’s tempting to assume that when you’re borrowing elements from a classic that the genius who created it knows best. But it’s critical to bring something dramatically new to the story, or readers might as well read the original. Choose the elements that fit your story, and don’t hesitate to ignore those that don’t work.

Keep your references subtle.
Some of the best stories I’ve read borrow from classics in such a way that I often don’t realize the connection until after I’ve finished the story. It makes a second reading of the book that much better. If it’s too obvious or heavy-handed, the effect can be to dull the impact of your story.

Don’t choose multiple classics to borrow from in one novel.
A rookie mistake that I made in my writing was to incorporate inspiration from multiple texts into my writing. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to do this, but it takes a masterful hand to incorporate different references expertly. Often the effect can be confusing or overwhelming. And remember, it is your original content that will bring readers back, not what you’re borrowing from the classics.

Have you borrowed from the classics when writing your novel?

How to Create a Likeably Flawed Protagonist

shutterstock_104313347As a writer, I’ve often heard about the trap of creating a character who’s too perfect. They don’t seem human and can often come off flat and boring. If there’s no room to grow, then where’s the story going? On the other hand, creating a flawed character is a tricky business. With a few notable exceptions, readers want to root for the protagonist, so they must be likable. Sometimes we may want to shake them, but they aren’t so irredeemable that we want to shut the book.

The best protagonists walk this line with flair and originality. Below are the lessons I learned from some of my favorite, classic authors on how to create characters whose flaws are an integral part of what makes them compelling.

Make a Flaw a Secret Strength
Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels of all time because of the wonderful heroine at the center of her story. Jane has a temper, railing against the unfairness she encounters with her family and at her horrible boarding school, rather than accepting her lot quietly, piously and passively like a good little girl. It’s this fighting spirit that makes Jane so lovable to the reader and her love interest, Mr. Rochester. She is also uncompromising in her values, leaving the man she loves when she finds out that he’s married, even though she wants to stay with him. This stubbornness almost costs her happiness and even her life, but when she manages to take a risk at the end of the story, her reunion with Mr. Rochester is all the sweeter for knowing how hard it was for Jane to turn around and come back to him.

Counterbalance Flaws with Self-Sacrifice
A Tale of Two Cities – Sydney Carton

Charles Dickens knew how to paint bright spots of humanity even in its darkest hour, and Sydney Carton is the best of his creations. A cynical, alcoholic and depressed character at the beginning of the novel, Sydney is completely transformed by his love of a woman to give his life to save the man she loves. His story wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he was  better man. It is overcoming his flaws, or achieving true goodness in spite of them, which makes this story one of those that stays with you forever.

Choose a Flaw People Can Relate To
Hamlet – Hamlet

There are dozens of wonderful Shakesperian examples of flawed heroes to choose from, but Hamlet stands out as one of the characters who strikes a chord with many people. His fundamental goodness – loyalty, courage and committment to the truth – are undermined by his flaws – his indecision, pride, and depression. He’s a character that you simultaneously root for and want to shake. Every time I read the play I find myself somehow hoping that his final demise can be prevented. He’s a character that has taken root in my brain as a reminder that good intentions without action can be disasterous.

Let Your Character Revel in their Flaw
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Lisbeth Salander

Perhaps this isn’t quite a classic, but I couldn’t end this post without mentioning Lisbeth – a violent, anti-social vigilante with an obsession with revenge and justice. What’s not to love? Stieg Larsson did an incredible job created a complex, multi-layered heroine whose flaws make her more lovable, rather than less. She’s tough, able to take down men three times her size, but also vulnerable, a woman alone who only knows how to turn to herself when she needs help. Watching her kick butt is gratifying and riveting.

Who are some of your favorite examples of delightfully flawed heroes and heroines?

Attempting to Channel the Bard

NEW121I was 13 when I discovered William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it changed my life. I had always loved writing, but when I encountered his words and saw how poetry and fantasy could merge together, I knew I found something special. It’s been almost two decades since then, but Shakespeare remains the biggest inspiration in my life. The best thing about Shakespeare is that you never run out of angles to analyze, from word choice to character development to plot.

When I developed the Globe, which is the world in my YA fantasy series The Conjurors, I named most of the major countries after locations from my favorite Shakespeare plays. The atmosphere of the play that the location came from inspired how I felt about the people who lived there.

Arden is the capital of the Globe, named after the forest in As You Like It. It is the home of my main character, Valerie, when she travels to the Globe from Earth. In As You Like It, Arden is a forest, a place of possibility, where the rules that apply to the civilized world can be bent. It is a place of art and philosophy and love, which is why I made it the beating heart of the Globe.

The mountains of Dunsinane are where the villain of the story, Reaper, lurks. Dunsinane is where much of the action in Macbeth occurs, and that play has such a heavy darkness to it that I felt it reflected the depth of evil that Reaper is capable of. To me, just hearing the name “Dunsinane” sends chills down my back, and I think of ruthless ambition and decaying morality.

Other countries inShakespeareclude Messina, from Much Ado About Nothing, a land where the people have forbidden the use of magic, and Elsinore, from Hamlet, where royalty and betrayal are the obsessions of the people.

Using these plays as inspiration gives me a sense of place when the characters in my stories travel from land to land. The countries are strongly differentiated in my mind, which makes it easier to create cultures that are unique, but somehow fit together enough that it is realistic that they could all inhabit the same world.

What makes a fantasy world feel real to you?