timelessness in your writing

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“. . . the best literature reaches across the boards to people from every walk of life. Regular folk can relate solely through story, character, and situation . . .”

Lisa Mannetti, An Interview with Lisa Mannetti – Part I

Over the weekend, Kathryn Magendie wrote a super post on writing what you know through empathy, projection, and perception. As I was pondering Kat’s comments, I recalled Lisa Mannetti’s comments from her interview here on helluo librorum on what makes a novel or story literary.

At that point, something in my wee brain clicked. Lisa defined literary, and Kat’s post shows you how to achieve that goal to make your work timeless. The equation boils down to the empathy a writer is able to draw from the reader for the characters. The novels we return to again and again aren’t about “things” or “places” so much as they’re about people and their struggles for love and acceptance.

Think about what makes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon so timeless. While many people are initially drawn to the novel by their love of Arthurian tales, it is really Morgaine’s story. Avalon is loved my multiple generations of fantasy fans primarily because of the empathy Bradley creates within the reader for Morgaine and the other women in her life. Bradley reaches into these women to draw on themes of loyalty and love to create multi-dimensional characters that will speak to generations to come.



The last unicorn Peter S. Beagle creates empathy for his protagonist in his poignant tale, The Last Unicorn. Here the protagonist is not even human, but by the end of the novel, the reader is so drawn into the unicorn’s story it no longer matters. Beagle imbues her with human yearning and gives her a chance to become mortal long enough to experience love. The Last Unicorn is truly a classic, and the primary reason is the empathy Beagle is able to create between the reader and his characters. The tale is timeless.


I have no idea what it feels like to be held prisoner, but I know what it feels like to be helpless in the face of forces I can’t control. That helplessness is the emotion I must communicate to my reader, and I can transmute my personal experience into my protagonist’s situation. This is how I create empathy for my protagonist. Not by telling you he is a prisoner, but by allowing you to experience his helplessness through his point of view.

Look at your own stories. Are your readers empathizing with your characters? Do you think your story can reach out to all kinds of people? Do you want your fiction to speak to the heart? What are some of your favorite works of literature and how did the author’s work speak to you?


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15 Responses to timelessness in your writing

  1. deanjbaker says:

    good to see this – thanks

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    Hey Teresa- This is a nice way to think about it. I want my readers to understand how my MC relates to the world as an empath and I relate it back to experiences I’ve had.

    Like maybe someone is having a bad day and by the time I’m done talking to them, I’m in a bad mood too. Or vice versa.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Kelly, I think you’ve got the right idea. We want to communicate our characters’ feelings to our readers in such a way as to influence their moods.

  3. Teresa, this was a really interesting post. I can only hope my readers feel what my characters feel. My goal is for all my stories to be timeless and that anyone of us can relate.

    xoxo — Hilary

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read some of your excerpts, Hilary, and you also have a talent for giving non-human characters very human feelings and getting your reader to empathize with your characters. I can’t wait for Nightshade City to be published this fall!

  4. tikiman1962 says:

    Aren’t there stories/novels in which the main character is not someone you can entirely be empathetic with but who is fascinating nevertheless? The mad grab for power by Willie Stark in “All the Kings’ Men”. Just about everybody in “Sanctuary” by William Faulkner. Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”. (Perhaps an extreme example.) However, there is a fascination about the characters because of the timelessness of themes. There are many people that I don’t agree with on a political or religious level, for example, who I respect nevertheless because of a shared sense of values. I find the same to be true of authors whose genre I don’t particularly enjoy but whose sense of timeless themes keep everything real and balanced. That and a feeling of honesty.

    • Teresa says:

      Wuthering Heights (one of my personal favorites) would be my pick for that category. Look at Catherine and Heathcliff, neither of them are likeable characters, but there is something in the theme of their doomed love and a man driven insane with passion that keeps people reading Wuthering Heights over and over (me, included).

      I think when you have characters like a Heathcliff (or a Stark or Bateman), the readers are drawn to the story with the same fascination as people watching a train wreck or the paparazzi’s latest doomed girl-wonder. You simply know something terrible is going to happen, but you can’t tear your eyes away.

      However, I tend to caution most novice writers (myself included) that you really need to write like Faulkner or Brontë to pull off a protagonist like that. At some point, the reader must see a flicker of humanity in the protagonist. Heathcliff is a good example, because his love for Catherine and his wretched childhood give the reader some glimpse into why Heathcliff is so bent on revenge. That achieves the balance you’re talking about, HB.

      Just as a note: for the record, folks, I’m not a Jane Austen fan — I know, I know, but it’s true, her novels are too light for me. I’m an Emily Brontë girl all the way through. 😉

  5. kat magendie says:

    Yes, that difference between sympathy and empathy – both can be found, but they are different things altogether. I can murmur platitudes to someone in pain, sympathy,but until I imagine myself in their place feeling something of what I imagine they feel-placing myself in their cliched shoes, empathy, then those platitudes drop like stones on the floor. In empathy, I may not even have to say a word to that person, but when I do, it comes from the heart and from the marrow, not from something I think I ‘ought’ to say because it is “required”

    • Teresa says:

      I think that’s what we mean when we say a character “spoke” to us. We were able to so thoroughly emathize with a fictional character, we felt their ever trial as our own. Thanks, Kat, that was beautifully worded.

  6. jessiecarty says:

    Really great post Teresa. I really do hope that my poems will help invoke a certain amount of empathy but I worry sometimes about trying too hard…

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jessie, I’m not a very good poet at all, but I really admire others who have the ability to write poetry. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. jenniferneri says:

    I love this post, Teresa!

    It really is something I desire in my writing and crave in my reading. Universal needs and desires that everyone can relate to regardless of the plot.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you manage to achieve that with your writing, Jennifer. From the small pieces you’ve shown us on your blog, you have a knack for tapping into the emotion of a moment.

  8. jenniferneri says:

    Thank you, Teresa.

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