I’ve been reading War and Peace and despite the story being over a hundred and fifty years old, it holds up. Caught in the sheer word count and age of the story, I thought it’d be a drag but I’m happy that isn’t the case. Through reading the story (and in full disclosure I’m still in book 1, give me a break the thing can snuff out an anthill) I’ve wondered what makes the story, and others, feel timeless.
For that story it came down to the characters and in particular, descriptions of the characters. At a dinner party Tolstoy describes a man as: […] a sallow, clean-shaven civilian with a thin and wrinkled face, already growing old, though he was dressed like a most fashionable young man. Then later with a military officer named Berg: “Consider my position […] I should get not more than two hundred rubles every four months […] but as it is I receive two hundred and thirty,” said he […] with a joyful, pleasant smile, as if it were obvious to him that his success must always be the chief desire of everyone else. A young naïve man named Pierre sits in a chair blocking a doorway, unaware of this fact and unsociable with the other guests.
I’ve been that guy. I’ve seen all these people in real life. Midlife crisis man, self-absorbed centers of the universe. It hits me in the gut.
Making a character believable is a vivid construct eliciting a strong positive or negative reaction that we tie to our lives lays in the details. We may want an Atticus Finch in our lives, as a friend, maybe we see our apprehension reflected in Hamlet’s tough choice. Fleshed out characters with personality, goals, flaws, and more makes them relatable. It all helps build the illusion of real people through the page and real people stand the test of time better than templates because of the creative investment we put towards them when we look back to our lives and our world.
Further, the story’s focus plays a large role in the timeless feel. War and Peace focuses on war, a concept so universal in recorded history you’d have to go far afield to stand on a square foot of earth which hasn’t been fought over. You can talk about it in many ways but no one will hear the elevator pitch and ask, “What’s this war you speak of?” If the story’s focus is the difficulties in configuring the new phonograph, it’ll go out with the technology.
One story that captures this dynamic in stark relief is The Heart of Darkness where Joseph Conrad spends half the tale dropping ominous hints about and delving into the strange mind of Kurtz and the other half giving every last detail he can about the use and operation of a ramshackle steamboat. Interesting character, give me more. Here’s how this outdated technology operates (as described with specific terminology which assumes you are already familiar with the machine), my vision has blurred from sheer boredom.
This shouldn’t stop you from writing about something specific or centered on any given time period, but you have to compensate for the loss of relatability to a future audience (future from the story’s setting and the mentality of the writer).
One thing I’ve always found helpful and something that’s fascinated me is how much more timeless a story is when the characters are animals. It might be the commonality of transposing oneself onto animals or that the creatures, if treated as animals, don’t have much of a grand arc. Whether it’s Bambi or Animal Farm or a scorpion on a frog’s back, the simple motivations we oft attribute to animals can simplify the story and lower the bar to suspend disbelief. If the fawn is sad because its mother was killed, we know the entirety of this creature’s being in that moment. Also, animals themselves haven’t altered as humans have with the long course of time. Place a person back four thousand years ago and you have the premise for a fish out of water story. Place a fish back four thousand years ago and would it even notice?
A lesson to internalize is to not make the reader feel like a fish out of water. If you’re going to reference something of the time then it should be apparent to anyone reading. Anyone of any walk of life, of any income, of any political bend. My exercise entails treating the reference as if it was entirely fiction.
Take an awful beer like Schaefer, promoted as “The beer to have when you’re having more than one beer.” It’s a tacit admission of the product’s terrible quality and the drinkers’ alcoholism. I (or rather the narrator) could just say the beer is terrible and the reader would get it if they know about Schaefer, but that’s more tell than show. Imagine if a character says, “Swizz? Pthhh. I’d never drink that.” We get the product is not liked by that character but it doesn’t have the same punch as the Schaefer jingle and there’s no real comparison we can make based off the information provided. Now imagine a character looking at a billboard which reads, “A Swizz a day just ain’t enough,” with a man holding a foaming Swizz in each hand. It has the same effect as the Schaefer jingle and we can make the comparison to any local, low tier, guzzle down beer with a clueless marketing team we instantly conjure up. Whenever you have a real person, place, consumer product, sport, etc., be sure the information provided on it would convey the proper information to the most alien of readers.
The final aspect of a timeless story that comes to mind, is the tone and the ending. Essentially, these two things combined conjure up the eternal last words, “and they all lived happily ever after.” The entire story need not be hackneyed but there’s a reason so many Christmas tales have lasted strong for decades and centuries. There’s an obstacle, a moral learned, then a wonderful life awaits the characters we’ve come to love. It’s a captivating tool of escapism. Who doesn’t hold dear someone or something which says everything’s going to work out? Is it any surprise some of The Beatles most popular songs after half a century include Here Comes the Sun, Let It Be, and Hey Jude?
Or, the story can leave on a contemplative note which puts strength in the reader’s hands. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” That’s something you can carry your entire life. From childhood to the old age home, the message doesn’t dull, your investment is returned. The world may be unrecognizable from one generation to the next, but leaving a story with a great sense of purpose and standing in time is everlasting.