6 Tips for Reimagining Classic Fiction in Your Writing

Reimagining classic fiction has been a common practice among authors since the dawn of novel writing. Here, learn a few lessons from the masters about writing novels that incorporate elements of the classics.
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Reimagining classic fiction has been a common practice among authors since the dawn of novel writing. Here, learn a few lessons from the masters about writing novels that incorporate elements of the classics.

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by John Kessel

Long before the term "fan fiction" was invented, writers were rewriting the work of earlier writers. As Jane Smiley (author of A Thousand Acres, which retells the story of King Lear on a farm in Iowa) says, "reworking old material is a tradition as old as literature." Shakespeare did it repeatedly: His Troilus and Cressida riffs off Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde while borrowing from Homer's Iliad for good measure.

Many contemporary writers have gone the bard one better, entering into or otherwise recreating the world of classic fiction in new works, from John Gardner's Grendel (Beowulf) to Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) to Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (the Aeneid) to Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre) to Gregory Maguire's Wicked (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), to Theodora Goss's The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (a half dozen 19th century classics from Frankenstein to Dracula) to a thousand fairy tale retellings.

I do it myself in Pride and Prometheus, a novel that merges the worlds of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Such stories can be good or bad, original or completely derivative. If you are going to do this sort of thing, you ought to do it right. Here are some tips.

1. If you borrow characters, make sure they are recognizably the same as the originals. Where they differ, give us plausible reasons to understand why they are different.

One of the pleasures of reading this sort of story is to revisit familiar characters and incidents. There is pleasure from recognition, but there is pleasure from difference as well, as long as the difference can be accounted for. Basic rule: Don't turn Jay Gatsby into a costumed superhero. Although Gardner's version of Grendel is a talkative, sarcastic, existential loner compared with the wordless monster of Beowulf, through his thoughts and actions we come to understand why he does the things he does in the Anglo-Saxon epic, regardless of his modern voice and attitudes.

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2. Do the research. Read the book or play, understand the time period, steep yourself in the sensibility of the original. If you can't reproduce its voice, then create a voice that is suitable to the tale.

Ursula Le Guin's wonderful Lavinia takes a minor character from Virgil's Aeneid—the young Latin princess the hero Aeneas ultimately marries—and tells from her perspective the story of the Trojan hero's arrival in Italy. Lavinia is the daughter of a king, but she lives not in a marble palace but in a humble pre-Roman town. Le Guin creates the gritty, realistically primitive life of pre-Roman Italy in great circumstantial detail: We can taste the wine, see towns surrounded by wooden palisades, worship with these people their household gods. Through attention to character and setting, Le Guin brings Virgil's remote, ancient story—one that very few nowadays have read—vibrantly to life. She must have spent a very long time studying early Latin language and culture, and the geography and climate of the place that was to become Rome. It shows on the page. Do the same.

3. Bring something new.

I suppose we would not attempt to reimagine classic fiction if we did not think we could bring something of our own to the effort. If all you want to do is tell the same story over again, then you risk boring the reader. Jane Austen already wrote Pride and Prejudice, and if you climb into the ring with her, you'd better bring some moves of your own. Bridget Jones's Diary is fun not just because it retells Austen, but because author Helen Fielding makes Bridget so much a modern woman, engaged with issues that Elizabeth Bennet would never have encountered, let alone considered appropriate for polite company.

4. Comment on the original. Engage with its issues. Deconstruct.

Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea—now widely considered classic fiction in its own right—is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, telling the story of Mr. Rochester's first wife. In Jane Eyre,she is the hidden madwoman in the attic, a threat to Jane and her love for Rochester. We spend no time empathizing with her. Rhys tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a young Creole woman of the West Indies sold into marriage to Rochester and ultimately forced to move with him to England, only to be locked up in his cold mansion, where she slowly goes mad. With the benefit of a century's understanding of imperialism, and drawing on her own Creole heritage, Rhys shows us this character in a new light. In the process, she opens Charlotte Bronte's world out into a critique of race and colonialism.

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5. Respect the chemistry.

Understand why the original is good in the first place. Here's where I take a poke at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which, it seems to me, does not respect the virtues of Austen's novel. But wait, didn't I just say a retelling could deconstruct the original? Yes, but there is a difference between deconstruction, which requires one to understand how the thing was constructed in the first place, and exploitation, where one slaps whatever portico one wants onto the original building, no matter how slapdash or inappropriate, and calls it a renovation. It's the difference between a reinvention and a one-off joke.

Don't be too smug about discarding the assumptions of the original author, as if we all know so much better now than they did back then. I expect most of us would not be drawn to write in a world created by another if it did not fascinate us in the first place.

6. Make sure your story can stand on its own.

You'll likely get some good mileage from the pleasures that readers of the original work will get from revisiting that world. In Pride and Prometheus, I think of some details I planted in the text as "Easter eggs" for those who are hip to Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. For instance, in chapter one I have my heroine Mary Bennet pass by some people in the street who are characters from Austen's novel Persuasion; elsewhere, my Mary mentions having read A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written by Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley.

Fun, right? But if enjoying your book depends too much on familiarity with the original, then at best you are cutting yourself off from a lot of your potential audience, and at worst your story may be incomprehensible. In no way should it be necessary for the reader to pick up on such details: never have any significant plot point turn on something requiring that kind of foreknowledge.

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Born in Buffalo, NY, Nebula Award-winning author John Kessel most recently published the new novel Pride and Prometheus. He is the author of the earlier novels The Moon and the Other, Good News from Outer SpaceCorrupting Dr. Nice, and in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short story collections are Meeting in Infinity (a New York Times Notable Book), The Pure Product, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. Kessel holds a B.A. in Physics and English and a Ph.D. in American Literature. He helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. He and his wife, the novelist Therese Anne Fowler, live and work in Raleigh, NC.

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