Classic Books

Image by David Masters used under CC BY 2.0

If you went to a typical school in the western part of the world, then you grew up studying the classics: books by authors such as Bronte, Shelly, and Dickens, just to name a few. And it’s tempting for today’s unpublished writers to imitate them. After all, classics are supposed to be the best books ever; that’s why they’re taught in school.

However, these writers were masters of their craft in their own time, not ours. Today, writing like the greats is a sure-fire way to NOT get your books published or delight your readers. Let’s look at some writing conventions from the past that should not show up in a modern book.

1. Using Names That Imply Something

Uriah Heap.
Holly Golightly.
Lady Chatterley.

Just mentioning these names conjures up mental images. Uriah Heap sounds villainous, and he is. In fact he’s considered one of the best written villains in the Dickens world. Holly Golightly brings to mind a woman who doesn’t take anything seriously and who is a bit self-centered and childlike. Lady Chatterley creates a mental image of a somewhat uppity woman (the “Lady” part) who talks too much.

Writers of the past used names like this as a way to create an impression of a character before you even met them. While the readers of yesteryear reveled in this, modern readers are too savvy for this trick. It makes them feel talked down to.

There are a few exceptions:

  • Readers of children’s literature have no problem with a name like Draco Malfoy or Ron Weasely. Since the Harry Potter books appeal to a child’s playfulness, adults don’t feel patronized. They know the story wasn’t written for them.
  • It can also work if the character is a known non-human trying to fit into a human world. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good example.
  • Adult readers might accept suggestive names if a good explanation is provided. An example is the book Green Lake by S.K. Epperson. It has a character named Earl E. Birdie. Epperson explains Birdie’s weird name by hinting that his mother wasn’t all there.

Otherwise, expect pushback from clever fans.

2. Making Villains Ugly and Heroes Beautiful

Prior to the modern age, the accepted cultural belief was that God granted beauty and health to His favorites. Therefore, if you were not beautiful or had something else “wrong” with you, God was singling you out for punishment.  This is why people amused themselves by visiting freak shows, asylums, and making fun of those who were different.

This belief became a type of writer’s shorthand. Villains are ugly while heroes are beautiful. J.R.R. Tolkien was particularly prone to doing this. However, the Lord of the Rings was written in a time before the cultural shift away from this practice. To stay true to their source material, the movie adaptations had to depart from modern values.

Using beauty or ugliness as a shorthand nowadays is not only lazy writing but also perpetuates the belief that those who are not beautiful are somehow “less.” Even J.K. Rowling came under fire for using the Dursley family’s weight to make them less likable. Her critics have pointed out the Dursleys were dislikable without fat shaming.

3. Instilling a Fear of Foreigners

Prior to the late twentieth century, the world was a larger, more mysterious, and more dangerous place. Most people rarely left their hometown, let alone their country. People, cultures, and objects from other lands were considered exotic, forbidden, and a little scary.

This is why writers could explain something strange by saying it was from the Far East, Africa, or from any other of a dozen places people saw as shrouded in mystery. For example, the Monkey’s Paw (from the story by the same name) was said to be from India, a place shrouded in mysticism, romance, yogis, and bizarre rituals. Whatever was done to it “over there” is what gave it the power to grant wishes.

Stories such as Tarzan, King Kong, and Mighty Joe Young took advantage of the fact that hardly anyone knew anything about Africa and even less about gorillas. It wasn’t asking an audience too much to believe in over-sized or almost-human gorillas. After all, no one knew anything to the contrary.

Although we are still fascinated by cultures outside our own, they are no longer frightening and a source of amazement. Explaining a strange thing’s origin as merely foreign isn’t enough for today’s readers to believe in that object’s or person’s power. For an object or person to have the same air of mystery our ancestors enjoyed, its power needs to be based on advanced technology, magic, the past, or a parallel universe.

4. Including Pages of Description

If you’ve ever read a classic novel, you probably noticed it droned on about scenery for many pages. This worked well in a world without TV, the internet, or even photographs. Past generations needed long descriptions of scenery to imagine a world they’d never seen.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Captain spends several paragraphs describing the frozen north as he struggles to be the first to reach the North Pole. Since no one had actually been there yet, it wasn’t something the average reader could picture. This is why he talks on and on about the endless ice, the sun that never sets, and the harsh climate.

Moby-Dick goes into great detail about life on a whaling ship. That benefited the many people who were oblivious to that lifestyle. However, today’s reality TV shows, specialty sites, and an endless parade of YouTube videos fill in the knowledge gaps about alternate jobs or lifestyles. Though some details are interesting, using as many details as Moby-Dick did is like writing a primer.

Today, thanks to TV and the internet, a few well-chosen words are all that’s needed. Modern readers know enough about the world to fill in the blanks themselves.

Times change. Tastes change. While the basic rules of storytelling never change, readers’ expectations do. When you rely on conventions from the last century or earlier, you risk not only alienating readers but also promoting harmful stereotypes.

About Devlin Blake

After writing over a dozen books in various pen names and genres, Devlin Blake now helps emerging writers with their skills and confidence so they can write faster and complete that dark story. If you’re looking for an easy way to plot your story,you can pick up a FREE copy of Plotting Alchemy here.

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