To Admire or Imitate: A Writer’s Approach to the Classics

I’m reading “Dombey and Son” right now by Charles Dickens, and one of the things that is really sticking out in my mind is how “Dickensonian” the characters are. That is, a number of them–Captain Cuttle, Louisa Chick, Miss Tox’s neighbor–are characters that today would be considered caricaturish, dry, and boring. They repeat the same things over and over, they are ignorant and incapable of legitimate thought to the point that the reader wants to slap them even when they’re well-intentioned, and they are flatter than a pancake rolled over by a steam engine and sat on by a sumo wrestler.

For me, thinking about this is a fun reminder that literature, like all art, evolves over time. Things that were typical of nineteenth century novels and that we easily accept from a novel written in that time, we would completely PAN if they came out today.


It goes to show the dangers a writer can fall into if they can’t separate an admiration for older fiction from a tendency (which can be innate and unintentional) to imitate that literature.

The thing about Dickens’s stony characters is that, they work. If they come across as ridiculous, it’s because he means for you to judge them such. They don’t have a grasp of what life’s really about. They are held in high contrast with a handful of good, kind, meek, and pitiable characters who are much well-rounded and come across as even more fully human in contrast with the others who inhabit their universe.

Even so, it wouldn’t be a good idea in this day and age to imitate what Dickens does to set apart the characters you’re meant to like form those you’re meant to judge. What is really blowing me away in “Dombey and Son”–particularly because this is one of my weaknesses in writing–is Dickens’s flair and gift for description of a setting and of a person. I tend to shy from going into too much detail about those things in my work because my writing turns dry when I spend too many words on that kind of thing. So that would be something I can definitely learn to imitate from Dickens and other masters of the 19th century novel. Characterization? Not so much….

Still, check out this AMAZING paragraph about little Florence, who used to sing to her brother Paul, trying to deal with the sickly boy’s death. It makes me want to weep:

“It was not very long before, in the midst of the dismal house so wide and dreary, her low voice in the twilight, slowly and stopping sometimes, touched the old air to which he had so often listened, with his drooping head upon her arm. And after that, and when it was quite dark, a little strain of music trembled in the room: so softly played and sung, that it was more like the mournful recollection of what she had done at his request on that last night [sing for a crowd at a party], than the reality repeated. But it was repeated, often–very often, in the shadowy solitude; and broken murmurs of the strain still trembled on the keys, when the sweet voice was hushed in tears.”

Oh. My. Dickens doesn’t describe grief, he SHOWS it. And it’s utterly, utterly heartbreaking! I can’t remember a passage touching me that way in a very, very long time. I think EVERY writer could learn something from studying and going through that paragraph a few times.

By all means, we writers should read all kinds of things, including the classics. The key in reading older texts is to figure out what things to imitate and what things to admire as well achieved and appropriate for their time, but not fitting for ours.


4 responses to “To Admire or Imitate: A Writer’s Approach to the Classics

  1. Ok, this is getting uncanny! lol This isn’t the first time that I have been thinking about something and you write a post on it. It’s like a mental telepathy kind of thing.. 🙂 I am writing my debut book, as you know, and it is a combination of ghost story/historical mystery. I am reviewing this book for my blog, and there was some dialogue that caused me to pause. Would this character say this, really? Then I have to remember that the setting is in the 1500’s. They did talk in with different words than we would choose today. They were much more formal and spoke in shorter clipped sentences as well. For instance: Your face appears elongated. Today we wouldn’t use that word in general speaking, we would simply ask, “Hey, what’s with the long face?” Or, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look beat!” For the time period, maybe “elongated” was used..I am a novice, I admit..but it did stop me from reading further until I thought about it. I am sure that wasn’t intended by the author. Anything that takes us out of the story and causes us to give up on that suspension of disbelief could also cause us, as readers, to give up on the book. That is that last thing we want for the reader to do, even if we are historically correct, if the reader is distracted, is it better to be right or to err on the side of caution?

    • I would NEVER have “Your face appears elongated” in dialogue! Wow, that would distract me too, and like you said, that’s never good. There’s a difference in formality, I think, and things that just sound kind of ludicrous. (For one thing, “long face” is kind of a colloquial expression that wouldn’t translate that way anyway!)

      If I was writing that, I’d use “Has something saddened you?” or “You seem morose.” Something along those lines. Wow… thanks for the comment. You raise a great point! Sometimes–in my opinion–it’s not an either-or situation. The key is searching for middle ground.

  2. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11-29-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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