Picture this. You’ve just picked up a copy of a classic book. It’s the kind of thing that people study in English lessons or write dissertations on. People you know can quote one or two of the lines off the cuff. There’s about seventy million adaptations of this thing, usually featuring Hollywood’s latest chiselled British darling as the leading man. Cultured and intelligent people read this book in tweed jackets and discuss it over port, and now that you have finally got a copy, you’ll be able to talk to them about it instead of sitting in the corner and hoarding all the cheese.
So, you read it. And it’s kind of disappointing.
This has happened to me too many times to count – especially the part where I eat cheese in a corner instead of joining in a conversation. I’ve read quite a few classic books and it’s very rare that they live up to the hype. Part of this is probably because hype is kind of everywhere now, and when you’re in the middle of a constant cycle of “This feels-wrenching drama will stop your heart and set your soul on fire” -style advertising, it can be very difficult to go into stuff believing that this heart-stopping, soul-searing experience is actually going to happen to you.
But it did also get me thinking. On my Strong Female Characters series, one of the things that came up most often for classic books was that when they were originally written, their characters were ground-breaking. Now that time has passed, they’re not. The way that we receive and interpret stories depends entirely on the context in which they are read, and this includes time and place. Meanings get lost over time. The definitions of words change over the years, and implications that might have been obvious to a historical reader are lost on a modern one. Similarly, readers bring new interpretations to historical texts because we are looking at those texts having grown up with ideas that hadn’t been conceived when they were first written. Context is everything.
Plots and clichés are an excellent example of how stories have changed over time. Modern readers expect different things from the things readers expected fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago. Ideas that were original and unsettling when they were first introduced have been used so often that the shine wears off and they become clichés.
The perfect example of this is that classic trope, ‘The Butler Did It’.
We’ve all seen this cliché before – in fact, I had a lot of fun with it in one of my Book Recipe posts. A bunch of people are invited to a mysterious old house, there’s probably a murder or two, and our plucky detective eventually discovers that the culprit was the butler all along! What shock. What horror.
But it’s worth remembering that when this trope was first introduced, it was actually shocking. Servants were not just people who came to a rich person’s house, sloshed some bleach in the toilet and then went home. They lived with them. They washed and dried their clothes. They cooked their food. They made their beds. They helped them dress. They helped them wash, sometimes, or helped them clean their teeth. It was incredibly difficult to have secrets from a servant, because you had to depend on them for so many things. The idea that the person who cleaned the lipstick off the collar of your shirt, who swept up the pieces of your mother’s favourite vase, who saw how many cigarette butts you left in the bottom of your ashtray could also be plotting your death – it’s kind of horrifying.
It’s not just clichés. What is acceptable in terms of plot has completely changed. This is something that dates way beyond the invention of the novel. In the original epic fantasies – stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf – storytellers would often take time out to send their heroes off on interesting little sidequests because they were fun and exciting. Sometimes these are pertinent to the plot, sometimes they’re completely irrelevant. Then, with the gradual move away from storytelling as a spoken form, there’s a trend to keep the plots more linear. You’ll still get little anecdotes off to one side sometimes, but generally these all serve a purpose for the story as a whole (probably because by this point editors had been invented). And then, later still, you have the move towards modernist fiction. In modernist fiction the idea of a plot can go completely out the window if that’s what the author wants. There’s more of a focus on mood, style and ideas, and most of the time that makes my head hurt a bit. We’ve come to expect different things from stories, and so we’ve rolled them out into new shapes.
This shifting definition of what is and what is not acceptable for a plot also affects characters too. Over the past few years there’s been a move towards stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven, and this changes what people expect from a protagonist. Stories where a character gets sent on a quest because of ~*Destiny*~ are slowly being replaced by stories where a character goes on a quest because they’ve decided to do it. It’s no good to have a protagonist who just sits around waiting for the plot to happen – much more compelling are protagonists who go and make the plot happen for themselves. The classic example of this is the characters in fairy tales. When the stories were originally told the characters weren’t really much more than archetypes. You had your handsome prince, your wicked witch, your pure and beautiful girl, and that was about it. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of detail about the characters’ personalities. But when you look at modern adaptations of fairy tales, the characters tend to be a lot more fleshed out. Writers will make a lot more effort to give them goals, preferences and personalities so that they can move away from the archetype. The perfect example of this is Belle’s character in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney film went out of its way to establish Belle as a bookworm who felt isolated by having an interest that nobody in her village shared – something which is completely absent from the original fairy tale.
But this cuts both ways. As expectations move forward, some characters are going to get left behind. Details about characters are lost because modern readers aren’t reading literature in the same context as it was written. Take, for example, the first mention we have of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. We’re told that when he was seen about town he was wearing a blue coat, and we don’t get any more detail than that. For the modern reader, this illustrates the gossipy nature of Mrs Bennet and not much else. But for the Regency reader this was a pertinent detail. Blue dye was expensive and not many people wore it. The coat itself is a piece of outerwear and worn in the daytime, so it wouldn’t be the fanciest piece in Mr Bingley’s wardrobe. The fact that Mr Bingley’s coat he wears for slouching about town is blue would have spoken volumes to the Regency reader – it’s signalling that he has mad stacks of cash.
But it’s not just the minor details that get lost in translation. What constituted a radical and ground-breaking character a few centuries ago is now seen as old hat. This is particularly obvious in female characters, as the social and political capital of women has changed so much over the past few hundred years. When she was first introduced to readers, Lizzie Bennet was radical by anybody’s standards. She was cheeky, she got her clothes dirty, she turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love. But two hundred years on these things aren’t radical any more. They’re normal. Modern readers go into Pride and Prejudice expecting a character who’s radical and game-changing, and meet someone who is pretty conventional by today’s standards. It’s not hard to see why some people might find this disappointing.
So the big question is this: how do you make a story that lasts? Well, luckily for you I have the answer right here in my new book, How to Write an Epic that lasts for One Billion Years, very reasonably priced at $99.99 per chapter…
…I’m kidding. But it is a question that’s worth asking. How come some stories have lasted for centuries while others have been forgotten?
I don’t have a definite answer, but this is what I think. Let’s jump back to fairy tales for a moment. Yes, they’re vague, and yes, the characters are basically fill-in-the-blanks exercises. In this case, that’s what works in their favour. As the detail just isn’t there, this means the reader, listener or writer can fill it in themselves. It’s easy to make a new adaptation of a fairy tale because the basic shape of the story isn’t tethered to time, place or the personality of its characters. Cinderella can be a cyborg, Snow White can be a vampire, Red Riding Hood can be a werewolf (and yes, all those stories do exist). These are stories that have got legs.
More complex stories are harder to preserve because so much of a story’s meaning is enmeshed in a social and cultural context. I talked about this briefly in my worldbuilding post so do look there for more detail, but what’s important to remember is this: what informs a setting also informs its characters. This applies as much to historical fiction as it does to fantasy epics. Stories written hundreds of years ago are caught up in a framework of cultural norms and societal beliefs that probably isn’t there any more. This is why editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen novels so often come with big wodges of footnotes at the back – they’re crammed with references that modern audiences just wouldn’t get without some serious background reading. Going in blind would be like showing a doge meme to someone from the 1500s and expecting to get a laugh. At best, you’d get a ‘sayest thou what?’ and at worst, you’d get burned as a witch.
But obviously, more complex stories do last. We’ve got Shakespeare’s plays, we’ve got The Iliad, we’ve got The Journey to the West. Countless stories have outlived their authors and gone on to become beloved classics for generations of readers. There’s no hard and fast reason as to why this is. It isn’t just good writing, compelling characters and an interesting plot that makes a story get remembered. You’ll still need all those things, but there’s always something else in the mix as well – some mysterious alchemy that lets good mature into great. I don’t know what this is. If I did, I’d probably have my own island or something.
Context is everything. Unless the details of a time and place are meticulously preserved, as Shakespearean scholars have done, then modern readers will miss something and the original meaning will slip away. But modern readers bring their own contexts too, and can shed new light on old stories. Adaptations aren’t always a way for an author or a movie studio to make a quick buck: done right they can be a thoughtful and compelling examination of something we thought we knew. Readers and audiences have new opportunities to see familiar stories with fresh eyes, and that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the impact of these stories when they really were new.
Stories that have lasted have something in them that speaks to people regardless of time and place. It can be anything from a feeling to a turn of phrase. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s description of loss in MacDuff’s speech from Macbeth that speaks to you, or maybe it’s Cinderella’s message that no matter how bad things may get, things will, one day, turn out all right. Whichever classic you pick, there’s something there that has spoken to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. And whether you like or dislike the actual story, it’s always worth acknowledging that that is truly extraordinary.