Universalities. Those little pearls of wisdom…
In literature, universalities are statements that apply to everyone or to the human condition.
Sometimes they’re accurate, insightful and give readers, young and old, a lovely ah-ha moment.
Sometimes they’re grossly inaccurate.
Famous universalities in literature include:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
‘It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.’ L M Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
And perhaps less famous but nonetheless…
‘Big ears. It’s a known fact, Mag. Men with big ears, they’re rarely courageous.’ Jen Storer, Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children
(As you can see, sometimes a sweeping generalisation can pose as a universality.)
In any case, universalities give your work depth and longevity. And inaccurate universalities, such as the one above, add humour, pathos or irony.
Never dismiss universalities as the domain of adult fiction. They work just as beautifully in kid lit.
Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart. A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
‘We are all a great deal luckier than we realise, we usually get what we want – or near enough.’ Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I don’t believe you can force universalities. You can try, but they’ll probably sound contrived or bland. Better to be patient. Better to spend time really getting to know your characters.
The more you work with your characters and your story, the more you increase your chances of stumbling across a wonderful universality. Either a character will utter one, or you will—in your glorious, magical role as narrator.
It’s a mysterious process. It tends to happen accidentally and without forethought.
Authors often take personal credit for universalities, as if they planned them all along.
But I suspect it’s more to do with the creative force speaking through the author.
When the ego steps aside, the creative force has room to speak.
Yep. That’s my universality for today.
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