Writing Lessons From Sense and Sensibility

Welp, finally came out with another video last night. Of course, by then, my brain was too fried to write a blog post about it. Then again, if I’d been a smart person, I would’ve had this written and queued up days ago.

But alas, my one brain cell couldn’t handle that.

First and foremost, here’s the video, for your viewing pleasure. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it. Even though it took us like three tries because the audio kept cutting out. Hey, by the end, I really knew my material. I could quote you the plot of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility backwards and forwards.

But all you really need to know is that Willoughby is the world’s biggest idiot.

Anywho, I didn’t get very intellectual in the video, and guess what? I’m not about to get intellectual now. But can I do a better job of laying out the actual writing lessons I gathered from this book? Sure.

1. Think about how your characters think about the world

One thing that Austen does really well is characterization. You get to know these characters really well throughout the course of the book, and even though it’s through a lot of long-winded descriptions, it doesn’t feel like telling because it’s so interwoven into the narrative via what they’re doing, who they’re talking to, and how they factor into the world around them.

Since there’s not a whole lot of action in these stories (I mean, they are country romances, after all), the characterization is primarily done either by dialogue or internal monologue. Through the latter, you learn a lot about the characters’ world views–and this gives you a deeper understanding of who they are. One of the most compelling aspects of these books is seeing how the main characters react to the situations they’re put in, and these reactions are definitely informed by how they view their world.

For example, Marianne loves music and the arts and only wants to associate with people who have an extensive knowledge for and appreciation of it. Her world view is that the only people worth associating with–and the only men worth falling in love with–are those who are like her. Because of this, she shuns Colonel Brandon, who isn’t artistically affluent, and falls in love with Willoughby, who seems passionate about the same things she is.

Of course, she eventually learns how shallow her criteria for judging people were, since many of the people she shunned for their lack of taste end up being good people with their own admirable qualities, but you as the reader are able to appreciate her character arc because you understand what her world views are pretty much from the get-go.

2. Compelling character arcs are compelling

Speaking of compelling character arcs, let’s talk more about that. I said in the video that between the two main characters, Elinor has the smaller character arc, and for me, the jury’s still out on whether she actually changes at all in the end. However, you could argue that she learns to open up to her sister, and to let herself feel the emotions that she had so long suppressed, especially when she no longer has any reason to hold them back. I love Elinor as a character–she reminds me of one of my sisters–but I think the most dynamic character arc lies with Marianne.

Marianne starts the book with a lot of good traits–she’s outgoing, she loves her family, she’ll defend her sisters to a fault, and she knows what she likes. However, she’s also extremely controlled by her emotions, quick to judge, quick to react, and generally holds everyone to an unrealistic standard, especially her potential love interest.

By the end, however, after falling in love with a man she thought was perfect, learning how un-perfect he was, and realizing how blind she’d been to her sister’s misery, she learns to reel in her emotions, be more gracious towards people who are different from her, and value kindness over good taste. It’s a great character arc, and I think it’s done without her having to lose who she is–nor do you as the reader ever find her unbearable at any point before her transformation. Melodramatic, maybe, but not unbearable.

Compelling character arcs take what’s flawed about a character and put it through a trial by fire–by the end, that character still retains their essence but has learned throughout the course of the story why they needed to change, and are better off for it.

3. Morally ambiguous characters are always a plus, even if they are giant idiots

One of the most amusing things about this book, especially when it came to some of the more minor characters, was how morally ambiguous they could be. There weren’t really any villains–at least, no one who was irredeemably evil. Nor was there anyone who was 100% innocent. This makes for some remarkably realistic characters, and often comes with the added bonus of making a lot of their actions more humorous than offensive.

To cite a minor example, the main characters’ half-brother, John, is a selfish, greedy cheapskate who finds every excuse imaginable not to help his step-mother and siblings, even though it was his father’s dying wish. But it’s actually kind of comical because he never fails to get talked out of it, either by himself or his equally greedy, conniving wife. However, he’s never portrayed as bad–in fact, Austen makes a point of letting the reader know that deep down, he feels bad about it… or tries to, anyway. In any case, it serves for some great humor, and you really just pity the guy for being such a self-interested prick.

Speaking of self-interested pricks, let’s talk about Willoughby, the “villain” of the story. My opinion is that above all, he’s really just a huge, friggin’ idiot. And I think that’s what Austen wants you to think, too, because the narrative really seems to want the reader to sympathize with him in the end. Hey, a sympathetic villain is still a villain, but more often than not, they’re incredibly more compelling.

Actually, I’d hardly call Willoughby a villain because he wasn’t actively trying to hurt anyone–he just acted in his own best interests and hurt everyone passively because of it. He’s, like… a passive-aggressive villain. And he really seems to realize the error of his ways and to feel genuine remorse about it, which is supposed to be his most redeeming quality. However, he doesn’t get off scot-free and has to live with the consequences of his actions. This is something he’s mostly come to terms with, which helps build his case as a morally ambiguous character.

He’s not evil, he’s just a moron.

Sense and Sensibilitable

Like I said in the video, should you read this book? If you’re a fan of Jane Austen, sure, I think it’s worth a read. However, if you’ve never read in this genre and are looking for an introduction, I’d honestly start with Pride and Prejudice. It’s got a little more drama and, you know, one of the most iconic enemies-to-lovers arcs in all of literature. But maybe I’m just prejudiced. Let your sensibilitable-ness decide.

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