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Write Like the Dickens

Photo by Flickr user Helen

Charles Dickens. His name is synonymous with so many things: Christmas [2], high school English classes, and comically repulsive characters existing in squalid social conditions. Most, if not all, of us have read at least one of his books — or, at the very least, seen one of the many movie adaptations of them. (Personally, I’m a bit fan of the Muppet Christmas Carol.) He’s such a cultural touchstone that even children’s movies refer to Dickensian quotes — or, at least, the movie-versions of them.

At the risk of sounding like a high school essay, Charles Dickens was born in 1812 to a poor family in Portsmouth, UK. When he was ten years old, his parents could no longer afford to send him to school, so he was sent, instead, to work in a blacking factory to earn money for his family. A couple of years later, his father was arrested for debt, and the rest of his family went to live in prison, while Dickens himself remained “free” to work in the factory in order to pay off his father’s debts.

The fact that he started his life in such poverty, educated himself, and went on to become one of the first real celebrity author (he did book tours throuhout the UK and the USA to sell-out crowds) is inspiring. But it’s far from the most inspiring thing about Dickens. It’s the other side of his writing that I’d like to talk about today.

Charles Dickens — Social Justice Warrior

Many of Dickens’ novels deal with the same themes — thus why we can use an adjective like ‘Dickensian’ with such ease. He wrote about people in difficult, poor situations, often dealing with workhouses and poverty and discrimination. His books served, in many cases, as attacks on particular social systems — from orphanages and workhouses, to schools, government bureaucracy, and nepotism. As an author, he wanted to create social change.

And, he succeeded.

Not directly, of course. Dickens didn’t draft or pass any laws, he didn’t make any social changes himself (although he used his eventual wealth to do a lot of individual good), but rather he created a “climate of opinion [3]” that made it more likely that laws would be changed.

As Dr Heather Shore, a social history expert, explains it:

You’ve already got a debate going on about juvenile crime, you’ve already got quite a lot of reform happening on the ground and attempts to establish a juvenile justice system – but all of a sudden he moves the debate on because now people, when they want to talk about criminal children they can think about the Artful Dodger – they know who these children are through Dickens’s fiction.

During Dickens’s time as an author, a great many labour laws — particualrly child labour laws — were introduced and/or strengthened. It’s hard to judge exactly how much of this was as a direct result of Dickens’s books, but his work definitely affected the zeitgeist of the time.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Writers change the world. And this is how we do it; by creating a climate of opinion wherein social change occurs because of the stories we’ve told.

The interesting thing, to me, about Dickens is how he accomplished this. He didn’t simply decide to write stories about how terrible his childhood was and hope for the best, he had an actual method to his writing that built towards this social change.

Know Your Audience

Dickens wasn’t writing stories for the poor and impoverished folk whose children were working in factories rather than going to school. They already knew what that life was like. He was writing for the wealthy people; the people who could read and write, could afford his books, and could also provoke change. So he needed characters and stories that would appeal to these people.

If you’ve read many of Dickens’s books, you may have noticed a theme in his central characters. Very few of them are actually “lower class” — or, if they are, they don’t stay that way for long. In many cases, the protagonist is, instead, an upper class person who, through no fault of his own, finds himself in poverty. He’s forced to survive in a lower class world due to an accident or a misfortune.

Readers, then, were easily able to empathise with these characters. Rather than being able to write off the character’s struggles as a “poor person thing”, they could see the possibility of themselves or their children in the character.

Clearly Show the Problem

Dickens didn’t merely say that Oliver Twist was always hungry, or that the boys at the orphanage weren’t fed enough. He wrote:

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end, out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of which composition each boy had one porringer, and no more except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides. The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons til they shown again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon.

That description makes me feel hungry on their behalf!

Dickens didn’t just state the problem, or give an overview of how the social structure were failing the lower classes, he plunged the reader right into the middle of the situation and let them experience the hardships of poverty for themselves.

Make it Fun

But he did it in a fun way.

No, really.

Dickens could certainly have made the same points with serious, intense stories, or with journalistic descriptions of poor houses and prisons. But how many people would have willingly read and enjoyed such a thing? Or paid a small fortune to see the author do a public reading?

Dickens wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if his stories weren’t full of satire and comical situations and over-the-top characters having over-the-top adventures. The plots had more twists and turns than any modern soap opera.

Coincidences! Faked deaths! Scheming relatives! Secret Benefactors! Inheritances!

Even today, Dickens’s stories are both fun and funny, and  interesting enough to make them page-turners. (Except, perhaps, if you’re a high school student who knows there’s an essay due at the end of the book.)

Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel

I’ve written a lot about the importance and responsibility of authors (and other artists) to create social change. And I’ve often been asked: How? How does one write a story that changes the world?

I don’t think there’s only one answer to that. There are a multitude of ways to use your voice to build a climate of opinion on a social issue.

But if you’re looking for a methodology that’s worked in the past, you could do worse than take some lessons from one of the best-selling authors of all time.

What are your thoughts on Dickens’s books? Do you use any of these techniques in your own writing?

About Jo Eberhardt [4]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.