Last updated on January 7, 2023
This article originally appeared on Pentalk’s blog.
When I began my Masters in Creative Writing from Perelandra College two years ago, I was frightfully afraid I wouldn’t be able to write fiction. I had spent the last thirty years reading and writing nonfiction in a journalistic setting. Long ago were the days I spent as a child reading fiction books about mushroom planets, traveling through tesseracts, meeting talking animals, solving mysteries of hidden staircases, becoming a heroine, and falling in love with war heroes. Those delightful stories were my constant companion and escape from reality; how different my early years would have been without those great books.
As I grow older, it’s refreshing to see my inner child peek out and remind me I am still who I was way back then. Yes, a little bigger around the waist with a few more wrinkles, but I treasure those wonderful stories that were such a big part of my childhood. What about them stole my heart and brought me such a love for books and writing?
Could I write a book similar to those that I so dearly loved? Matthew 10:24 states, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” I reasoned, how can I be the best writer possible unless I read the best literature?
I asked my professor, Ken Kuhlken, “What is the most perfect book ever written?” From this question, we had a series of discussions that led to me taking two classes of independent study. I set about reading some of the books he suggested. I am finishing my second class and looking forward to reading works by C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien. I saved the best for last.
After reading over a million words from the best literature, I have come to appreciate what makes a good book great is not accident or luck. The stunning story that emerges from the pen of a Master is a work of art, painstakingly designed, written, and edited. The stories are not created out of a “one size fits all” mentality or factory-produced, where the plots are predictable and the characters “stereotypical.” To write a great book, I won’t find GPS directions to get me there or weekend seminars to make it easy. Those activities serve useful purposes, but not to write great stories. It takes a commitment to excellence, patience, talent, and perseverance.
After reading ten of the best classics, I wonder if great writing is caught, not taught, and borne out of pain and suffering. I was surprised by the many similarities in the biographies of classic authors: The crucible of suffering was imprinted in their lives and found its way into the pages of their books.
To help me sort through what makes these books classics, I have listed ten characteristics I found in common. You might be surprised. I know I was.
1. Create characters that will be remembered long after the book is finished. We are made for relationships, and this part of our nature carries over into books. For example, I remember my first love crush from The Exodus by Leon Uris when I was seventeen; and the poor, battered soul in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Make characters memorable, and your book will be remembered.
2. The Christian worldview speaks to the heart of man. While fads come and go, new ideas spread across continents, and knowledge increases with each passing year, written on our hearts, are values that cross generations and cultures. All the classics I have read present a Christian worldview. While some make no mention of the Bible (Frankenstein), it is implied, and writers who have written classics embrace this universal truth.
3. Write tight plots. John Piper has written a wonderful book called Don’t Waste Your Life. I would say don’t waste your reader’s precious time by including scenes or characters that add nothing to the story. Every scene, every character, and every chapter must serve a point. Examples of the best are A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights. That doesn’t mean there can’t be many characters. It just means each character must be absolutely necessary to propel the story forward.
4. To add to your book’s greatness, let it make a statement about society, about life, about those things that are deep within us that cause us to groan and laugh, reflect and ponder, and most of all, never to give up hope (The Brothers Karamazov).
5. Take risks. Original works oftentimes make people squirm because they take the reader out of his comfort zone. Some of the great classics were not originally well received because they were “different” (Wuthering Heights).
6. Don’t shy away from embracing controversial topics or paradigms that impact the story and raise the stakes for the protagonist (The Grand Inquisitor, Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein, The Power and the Glory, Wuthering Heights, The Brothers Karamazov, and Pride and Prejudice).
7. Redemption out of chaos brings hope, leaving the reader with optimism about his future. I am reminded that our words will outlive us in the pages of our books. Make your book a gift worth remembering. (Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice).
8. The tone, symbolism, and motifs should work in unison to undergird the subliminal theme and arc of the story. Make it relevant to the reader (Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, The Power and the Glory).
9. Slow down the forward progression of the story sufficiently to explore the psychological and spiritual warfare experienced by the protagonist For example, here is a comment I wrote from my analysis of Crime and Punishment: “Never mind the ‘punishments’ I received. What I learned early on is I have a conscience. A relentless whisper spoke to me even when I didn’t want to listen. My guilt pricked my soul like a thorn, bothering me more than I could have imagined. I did not know I would feel so miserable before I committed each of my various “crimes.” I was forced to carry a heavy burden that painfully weighed me down until I either confessed my sin or my guilt was discovered. The suffering was relentless and did more to drive me to a loving God than the severe discipline I received from those who showed no grace.” (Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Pride and Prejudice).
10. Leave the reader forever changed. If your book is forgotten after the last page is read, you will have forfeited a great opportunity to make the world a better place.
If you have additional characteristics you would like to share, please do.
Lorilyn Roberts is an up-and-coming new author who writes with passion about life, politically incorrect topics, homeschooling, adoption, book reviews, author interviews, inspirational stories, family topics, Bible studies, poetry, and the art of writing. Lorilyn has written many books including The Donkey and the King, Children of Dreams, and How to Launch a Christian Best-Seller Book. She is the founder of the John 3:16 Marketing Network, a network of Christian authors who focus on launching books, and the president of the Gainesville, Florida, Word Weavers Chapter.
Lorilyn’s personal website: https://lorilynroberts.com.