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Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Once a Thief, Forever a Thief."

Writing Tips from Les Misérables, Part 3



I've been dissecting Les Misérables, and I have great news—my dissection has been published on Hypable.com, an online entertainment magazine with over 16,900 followers. You can view it on Hypable right here. Part three of my dissection will discuss perceptions, a complex antagonist, and epic appeal. (Read part one or part two.)

Plays with Perceptions

Les Misérables takes advantage of perceptions. As I mentioned before, Javert’s perception of Valjean is influenced by criminal stereotypes. Other characters view Valjean differently. The Bishop sees him as a brother. Cosette views him as a caring yet secretive father. But Les Misérables goes beyond other characters’ perceptions.

It also explores how Valjean sees himself. Hugh Jackman pinpointed it well in one of his interviews. He said that Valjean is striving to be a good person, but constantly sees himself falling short.


As an audience, we get a perspective of Valjean that is somewhat different than all of these. Incongruent perspectives make this story more interesting.

Can you make perceptions surrounding your character incongruent? Having a character that is despised by others, but loved by readers is a common example, but still effective because it fosters sympathy for that character.

Valjean’s story wouldn’t have been as powerful if he and all those around him thought him to be a saint. Play with perceptions in your story to see if you can give it more of a punch.

Uses a Complex Antagonist


Javert is an interesting antagonist because he isn’t evil; he isn't really even “bad.” Sure, sometimes the book depicts him as a bit savage, maybe a bit of a maniac, but he’s more devoted and honorable than most people.


Like Valjean, Javert also feels inadequate in his relationship with God. In a different story, Javert could easily have been a hero. The problem isn’t so much his qualities as it is the imperfect laws he’s devoted himself to.




If your antagonist is a person or society (see 5 types of conflicts), make sure to round them out. Nobody is completely evil, and even the wicked view themselves as being in the right. Develop your antagonist so that he’s more than a cardboard cutout. Make him a real person.

Has Epic Appeal

Les Misérables works as an epic. Again, in Million Dollar Outlines, David Farland explores several ways a writer can give her story an epic feel. One way is to have a diverse cast of characters. Les Misérables has males, females, adults, children, rich, and poor, and each category of character is important to the story. Even little Gavroche is vital to the plot. He helps the revolutionaries on several occasions. When Javert poses as a spy, Gavroche reveals him for what he is.

Having a diverse cast exposes us to a variety of lifestyles and perspectives, making the story more relatable to a wider audience and also fostering an understanding and tolerance for those different than us.

We also follow many characters through a large portion of their lives, which is another way to make a story feel epic. We follow Valjean from his forties to his death and Cosette and Eponine from their childhoods to marriage and death, respectively. Epics tend to have a higher appeal.


Epics have the potential to be both “broader” and “deeper” with their plots.

You may want to consider making your story feel more epic. There are a few other ways to achieve this, and you can learn about them in Dave's book Million Dollar Outlines.

Closing Remarks


I’m sure there are plenty more aspects to explore in Les Mis, but can you see how the parts I dissected work to make it a masterpiece? Add depth? Add layers?

Hopefully this discussion has helped your understanding of story, will help you grow into a better writer, or gave you more ideas on how to strengthen your work-in-progress. Or at least increased your appreciation of Les Misérables.

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Announcement: I did a guest post on Heather Olster's blog. It focuses on how to start a story so that it stands out from the submission slush pile. You can read it here.

I also found this blog post about Javert interesting, if anyone wants to read more about Les Mis.

Next time, I'm taking you on a trip to Hobbiton, New Zealand.

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