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Monday, April 1, 2013

"Cosette, Your Father is a Saint"

Writing Tips from Les Misérables, Part 2

In my last post, I explained how Les Misérables evokes strong emotions, contains powerful themes, tells two kinds of truth, and uses all five types of conflict. If you missed it, you can read that post here.

But Les Misérables accomplishes a lot more than all that. Here is part two of my dissection.

Explores Complex Character Relationships

Les Misérables is loaded with complex relationships.

When Valjean takes in Cosette, he is suddenly awakened to what it is like to have someone to love and to have someone love him. And he’s “afraid of failing” her. Their relationship is so precious to him that he doesn’t want to mess it up, so, he refuses to tell Cosette about his past, afraid she will think less of him, that it would somehow ruin what they have. Sure, Valjean gives other excuses for not telling her, but they’re just cover ups.

I get the strong impression that Cosette wouldn’t mind so much about his past, after all, he was stealing bread to save a starving child. Valjean is far more self-conscious and ashamed of his origins than Cosette would ever be. So he hides it from her. This makes his death scene all the more powerful because he hears Marius, one of the only people who knows his true life story, tell Cosette that he is saint. Not a thief. Not a convict. A saint.

But even then, even then, he still can’t bear to tell Cosette his backstory. He asks her to read it after he has passed away.

Valjean and Javert have a complex relationship as well. They don’t hate one another on a personal level. Given, Javert’s perceptions of Valjean are spoiled by stereotypes, but Javert doesn’t really know him. In reality, Javert doesn’t like Valjean simply because he evades the law. Contrary to what Javert thinks, Valjean holds no personal ill-feelings toward Javert either, because he understands his enemy is just doing his duty.

Another intriguing aspect of their relationship is that they flip-flop in authority. Javert has authority over Valjean in the galleys. Valjean has authority over Javert as the mayor. Javert has authority over Valjean when he reveals his true identity. And it goes back and forth until Javert ultimately commits suicide.

Complex relationships make a story feel more realistic, can help round out characters, and add more dimension to your story. Move your characters’ relationships beyond black and white. The examples above show how the best relationship can have its complications while perhaps one of the worst can have its moments of understanding.

Implements Character Growth

Almost all the best stories have character growth. I’ve already touched on a number of examples of how the characters in Les Misérables grow and change. (See my last post.)  But here is the most obvious: Valjean goes from hard-hearted convict to a God-fearing martyr.

How do your characters grow and change? However they change, makes sure it’s as a result of the plot, that it is a cause and effect situation. Can you think of a way to make a change more drastic? Valjean’s is quite extreme.

Provides Foils for Comparisons

Les Misérables plays with foils. Cosette is perhaps the most innocent character in the story, but yet comes from a completely corrupt and offensive place. She switches statuses with Eponine. First, as children, Eponine is cherished and Cosette is valued as dirt. When they are adults, it changes--see that flip-flop theme again?

But perhaps the best foil of the story is of Fantine and Cosette. Fantine hoped for a happy life with her significant other, but he took advantage of her naivety and left her when she was pregnant. Fantine eventually turns to prostitution—the exact opposite of her dream. In contrast, Cosette finds real, innocent love with Marius. They are both young, but they both have pure intentions. And they get married. Essentially, Cosette fulfills Fantine’s dream. This foil is even more powerful since Cosette is Fantine’s daughter, and Fantine sacrificed her life for her.

Here is one last poignant foil: Valjean emerges from the sewers saving a life, while Javert jumps in to end his own.

Look for opportunities to create meaningful foils in your story. You can learn more about this in my past blog post.

I have one more post on dissecting Les Misérables, which will focus on varying perspectives, heightening epic appeal, using subplots, and creating a complex antagonist.

Until next time, look down, look down, and share your thoughts below.


  1. Yes! This post is so insightful, I LOVE it, and I love that story so many amazing concepts. That picture at the beginning is hilarious too :)

    1. Thanks, I'm glad it helped.

      Yes, I love picture also. :)

  2. Hey welcome to blogging saw your post on Where Legends Begin and enjoyed it.

  3. Applying Occam's razor:

    They probably used the word "saint" because it rhymed better than other alternatives.

    They probably made Valjean give a letter to Cossette rather than tell her because the audience already heard him tell his life story to Marius and probably don't want to hear it again.

    1. That could be true. It makes me wonder whether Marius called him a saint in Victor Hugo's text. I'll have to look it up sometime, along with the letter bit. But whatever the intentions, the points are still there. It's still part of the story. Great stories work out those little technical things along with the meat of the story--so both of the parts you mentioned work on multiple levels. Even if it wasn't intentional, it still enriches the text. At least those are my thoughts.

      Thanks for commenting :)

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