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How to Recognize (and Write) a Classic Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 15, 2020 • 4 min read

The definition of a “classic novel” can be hard to pin down. There are plenty of great books, but in order for a book to achieve true classic status, a novel must achieve a level of excellence or enduring cultural relevance that most new books can never obtain.



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What Is a Classic Novel? 4 Key Elements of a Classic Novel

From Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to modern classics like George Orwell’s 1984 and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, classic novels share certain characteristics that attract readers from generation to generation. Here are some common characteristics of a classic novel:

  1. A memorable protagonist: Classic works of literature usually share a common element: a memorable main character. From Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to the title character in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, classic books feature central characters with vivid, distinct personalities and strong points of view about the world around them. These characters often serve as the reader’s eyes and ears, providing a compelling vessel through which to observe the events of the novel.
  2. Exploration of the human experience: Many books become classics because they say something profound and eternal about the human condition. Whether it’s the coming-of-age story of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s first novel The Catcher in the Rye or the themes of social and class struggles in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, classic novels and short stories tend to express a universal truth about how humans perceive the world around them.
  3. A richness that rewards multiple readings: In Italo Calvino’s book Why Read the Classics?, the author attempts to answer the question of what makes a book a classic. He points out that the classics are often the books people reread. Classical literature begs to be read multiple times, revealing new depth and meaning upon each subsequent reading. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a young person for the first time might cause you to identify with Scout, a curious kid trying to make sense of the complex world around her. However, as you graduate high school and transition into adulthood, another reading of this particular piece of literature might cause you to latch onto Atticus, a man trying to protect his children while grappling with the moral ambiguity of society. Either way, a true classic of literary fiction can be read and reread, demonstrating new layers each time.
  4. Enduring influence: A true classic stands the test of time, finding modern audiences regardless of the period of time in which it was originally written. Shakespeare’s plays were published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but Shakespeare is considered a classic author because his work maintained its influence and relevance through the twentieth century into the twenty-first century because its themes, characters, and storytelling are timeless. In addition to being worldwide bestsellers, Shakespeare’s works have inspired countless retellings and adaptations in the world of theater, opera, radio, television, and film.

How to Write a Classic Novel: 3 Tips for Writing a Literary Classic

There’s no real way to know if your next novel will wind up on reading lists or in public libraries for centuries to come. However, there are a few steps you can take to increase your chances of writing the next great classic novel:

  1. Make sure your writing style is distinct. You won’t write a classic novel by imitating the voice of someone else. In the same way that only Mark Twain could write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, your story should be filled with your own inimitable style and observations about the world around you. There will never be another Tolstoy or Hemingway, so don’t try to imitate them. Instead, focus on putting as much of your own personality into your novel’s style and content as possible.
  2. Create a vivid world. A classic novel gives us an immediate sense of place. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne makes us feel like we’re in the middle of colonial America. Another good example is A Farewell to Arms, in which Ernest Hemingway renders the carnage and destruction of World War I in vivid detail. Whether your setting is modern-day New York or a far-off fantasy land, your reader should have a clear mental image of their surroundings, down to the sights, sounds, and smells.
  3. Your story should have thematic resonance. Classic novels tend to deal with timeless, universal themes. Whether it’s the eternal struggle of good vs. evil, the inevitability of death, or the corruptive nature of power, a classic novel should attempt to examine some enduring, immutable truth about the way humans behave. As you’re writing your novel ask yourself: What is the central theme? Is there a way to strengthen it? Is my theme something that readers of all backgrounds can relate to?
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