Shakespeare Revisited: Mining the Classics for Character

2012-Feb-11 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Whether you watch people at a mall, or sit on a park bench, or watch movies. Somehow we always seem to come up with the next lost soul, or hopeless romantic, or other character for our works of art. Todays guest is a fellow writer for Fantasy Faction who hosts a weekly feature there. If you haven't checked it out before, you should check it out now. Let's get to know her a bit first, shall we?

Amy Rose Davis is an independent epic fantasy author. She lives in Oregon with her husband, Bryce, and their four children. Bryce provides comic relief, editing, and inspiration, and regularly talks her off the various ledges she climbs onto.

Amy is an unapologetic coffee addict, but her other vices include chocolate, margaritas, and whiskey. She prefers cats to dogs (but houses both), loves the color green, and enjoys the smell of new pencils and crayons. She has eclectic tastes in friends, music, and books, and is as likely to watch 300 as Becoming Jane.

She writes for us today about calling up character inspiration from classic works, or in this case, specifically Shakespeare. Take it away Amy.

Let's say you have a great plot and setting for your next story. You have an intriguing "what if" start or a compelling twist you're dying to use or a world you can't wait to explore. The only problem is -- you have no characters to set in your world. What to do?

Revisit Shakespeare.

The Bard himself was a great imitator and had no qualms about borrowing themes, motifs, history, and characters himself. His characters were painted with masterful, nuanced brushstrokes, and yet they were universal enough to leave room for interpretation even today, four hundred years later.

"But Amy," you say. "I'm a novelist, not a playright. What could I possibly learn from a guy who wrote boring crap I had to read in high school?"

I'm here to tell you, I learned more about dramatic structure, plotting, and character development in my Shakespeare classes than I ever learned in a college writing class. For today, I'll just look at how revisiting Shakespeare can breathe new life into your fantasy characters -- and maybe give you some new ideas for populating those plots and settings you have rolling around in your head.

The Spoiled Rich Boy Turned Leader

One of my favorite characters in all of Shakespeare is Henry. In fact, one of the characters in Ravenmarked is very loosely based on Prince Hal/King Henry V. When we first meet Henry, he's Prince Hal, a ne'er do well rich boy who spends all his time in taverns with criminals, deadbeats, and self-professed cowards. By the end of Henry V, he's a consummate leader--a man who has secured his throne, won a stunning victory over the French, and even married the French princess.

One of the great things about Hal/Henry is the slow transformation of his character over three plays (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) along with the sense that he has planned to reveal his true nature all along. We get consistency of character, because at the end of his very first scene in Henry IV, part 1, he says a short soliloquy that shows us his intent--to appear to be a ne'er do well until the time is right. He ends his speech with, "I'll so offend to make offense a skill/Redeeming time when men think least I will." By the time he gives his St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V, we can easily believe this young man is a true leader in spirit and strategy.

The Mature Lovers

Shakespeare is full of cases of love at first sight, blind affection, dramatic suitors, jealous lovers, and the like, just like modern romance. But Shakespeare also gives us a great example of a mature loving couple in Much Ado About Nothing. At first glance, it would appear that Beatrice and Benedick are just a couple of old lovers who carry a grudge and can't stop snarking at each other, but as we watch them interact throughout the play, we see a true deep affection and admiration emerge as they deal with the drama around them. We don't know what their past is, but we know they have some history when Beatrice says at the beginning, "I know you of old." It's clear they're angry with each other at first, but it's also clear by the end of the play that they adore each other, despite all the sassing and attitude.

The great thing about Beatrice and Benedick is that we can really believe they love each other. The petty quarrels and arguments are just a cover for the affection just under the surface. They acknowledge the others' strengths in comparison to other men and women, and we know that they much love each other for more than just good looks or a good name. When they finally commit to each other at the end of the play, we know it's for good. There's no love at first sight here; they choose each other even knowing all of the faults and problems they're getting. That's a far more mature love than Romeo and Juliet's.

The Comic Relief

Sometimes I think our fantasy novels get a little heavy and intense. Shakespeare was a master at making sure his audience laughed as well as wept. In most of his plays, there is some kind of comic character who will appeal to the masses with witty, sassy dialogue, confusing malapropisms, or good old-fashioned slapstick humor. Dogberry of Much Ado About Nothing, Bottom of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Falstaff of the Henry plays, or Touchstone of As You Like It are all good examples of characters who can provide the comic relief a serious situation requires.

It's important to remember that even Shakespeare's comedies had some very dark and serious themes. The definition of "comedy" isn't "funny," as we might think today. Rather, the distinction of Shakespeare's comedies is that they had reasonably "happy" endings where the protagonist succeeded and the antagonist was defeated. Even so, the tragedies also included comic relief. The Fool in King Lear provides both comic relief and a foil for the increasingly mad King Lear. By the end of the play, we suspect the Fool was far less mad than the king himself.

My husband always says Shakespeare was meant to be watched, not read. I, on the other hand, adore the language, the characterization, and the plotting in the plays. I encourage my writer friends to mine the classics for nuggets of plotting, strategy, structure, and language, but don't forget the characters. Whether it's a tragedy, a history, a romance, or a comedy, you'll find pure gold when you mine Shakespeare for character.

I've always though the best thing about Shakespeare's works are his characters. They certainly stand the test of time. What other classic works could we mine for character inspiration? Is there anyone out there that matches what Shakespear brought us?

Thank you, Amy, for being a part of 29 Days. I'm truly grateful that you could take the time out of your busy schedule to write a guest blog for me.

As I said before, Amy writes a weekly column on Fantasy Faction, so drop by and get to know her. You can also visit Amy's website at to find out more info about her and her books.

Stop by tomorrow as we step over to the darker side of fantasy with Phil Tucker!

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

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