Long before Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, or Indiana Jones…there was Odysseus, Achilles, and Prince Hector. Before Blackhawk helicopters dropped Navy SEALs armed with SOPMOD M4’s into denied areas, Greek galleons delivered warriors armed with shields and swords onto foreign beaches. And long before hackers penetrated secure computer networks with Trojan horse programs, a crafty thriller writer named Homer wrote of a giant wooden horse with soldiers hiding in the belly that was wheeled unwittingly inside the walls of an otherwise impenetrable city.
The politics, deception, trials and tribulations, mythological challenges and epic battles presented in The Odyssey and the Illiad echo in Hollywood blockbusters to this day. The rich plotting, creative characterizations, clever ironies, and gut-wrenching twists of fate devised by Homer are still being borrowed by authors nearly three millennia later. There are many wonderful lessons to be learned from the Homeric epics, in this Career Author’s post I’ll discuss the Top Four.
(1) Ask a question and don’t answer it until the end
Many famous authors (Lee Child instantly comes to mind) use this technique. Sometimes the question is obvious and in your face, other times it’s a subtle thread woven just below the protagonist’s conscience. In the case of the Odyssey, the question is the former—obvious and in your face. Will Odysseus ever make it home? Like an itch you can’t quite scratch, the question burns, teasing and taunting us until the very end.
(2) Make things hard for your hero, then make it harder…and harder.
Of all the heroes ever written, none have had a rougher go of things than Odysseus. First, he’s conscripted to fight in a war he doesn’t believe in, torn away from his wife and newborn son, for a king he despises. Next, he must abandon his moral compass and devise a plot that results in the burning of Troy and murder of innocents. When he finally is given permission to voyage home, his fleet is sent off course, his spoils of war are lost, his ships become wrecked, his men are all lost at sea or murdered, his mind is beguiled, his body raped, and eventually his very sanity is corrupted. Finally, upon arriving home he finds suitors stalking his wife, his reputation sullied, his son turned against him and his throne all but lost…talk about a heckuva good time!
But through it all, we keep reading. Why, because we can’t help ourselves. We need to know if he’ll get his life back. We need to know if everything he suffered and went through was worth it in the end. We empathize with this man and we’re rooting for him. Also, we need closure…we’ve been been through so much. Er, I mean he’s been through so much. Wait! Is there a difference? Not when the author is so skilled that you feel the protagonist’s pain. Not when the author is so talented that you’ve walked all those miles in the character’s shoes.
The literary technique that forms the foundation of The Odyssey is one every storyteller should embrace. Master storytellers envelop you in their protagonist’s problems and labors and you can’t stop reading until the end because you’ve invested too much emotionally to walk away.
(3) Pick a thought-provoking central theme and recycle it over and over and over again.
The Odyssey is chock full of philosophical themes, but the one that resonated with me most powerfully is the concept of “defying fate.” The Greeks were poly-theists who believed in many Gods, most of whom were petty egoists, vengeful and quick to anger, and corrupted by their power. In this day of political demagogues, authoritarians, and billionaire activists, I think there are strong parallels, making the Odyssey still relevant for the modern reader.
Odysseus, despite being mortal, challenged a God. He would not bend the knee to the whims or will of an entity more powerful than him, simply for fear of retribution. He would not bend the knee to fate simply because he might lose. Odysseus trusts himself—his wits and moral compass—above all else and this is tested over and over and over again in many different and creative ways. But, no matter what he loses or how he’s punished, Odysseus never compromises his core belief. This resonated strongly with me, because like Odysseus I’ve always found the idea of might makes right morally repugnant.
(4) Every character should be memorable
Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Helen of Troy, Paris, The Sirens, Circe, Calypso, Scylla and Charybdis… and the list goes on and on. The characters Homer penned in Homeric epics are names that are still widely known thousands of years later. Even someone whose never read the Illiad, has heard of Achilles—the unstoppable warrior who’s mother dipped him in the River Styx as an infant. Or Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. Or Circe, the enchantress who bewitched Odysseus and turns his men into pigs. Homer’s cast of characters are literally unforgettable because they (a) have larger than life, flawed personalities, (b) memorable physical qualities, (c) and backstories and entanglements that worm their way into your brain and lever let go. The take away here is easy to say, but very hard to do. If you want to be remembered, if you want your book to be talked about and shared, then you MUST write memorable characters.
If you’ve never read The Odyssey or the Illiad, I highly encourage you to give one or both a try. I promise, they’re like nothing out on the market today! 😉
Likes this post? Something you want to share? Chime in on Facebook.