Why We Can’t Write Like Victor Hugo

Literary giants have created masterpieces that we love and adore. However, we aren’t able to write like them for a few reasons. I want to share why we can’t write like Victor Hugo, as I have found by reading Les Miserables. Craft and skill are obviously aspects to aspire to, but the biggest reason we can’t write like Victor Hugo, is because the current generations don’t have the patience.

Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is packed with history and description that bring the events to life. While the cast of characters and side lectures illuminates new views of the same scenes. All of this is part of what makes his work incredible. However, writing like Hugo will not make a writer successful today.


Marius was raised by his grandfather, a stalwart royalist, but comes to love and understand his father who was devoted to Napoleon. The conflict in him compounds and results in him joining and fighting as a rebel for the republic. Les Miserables is filled with a number of historical lectures and references. The political history of France results in a number of differing ideologies and political parties. Relationships in the story are complicated because of the political views.

I have to admit that I likely don’t have the patience or the efficiency to research and learn all the aspects of a history to create such a masterpiece of historical fiction. As far as readers go, (excluding history buffs) most want to indulge in the novel and the storyline of the characters rather than the history of the time period. To write like Hugo would entail a lot of research, or to have lived the history as he had.


Wonderful descriptions of the scenery and locations of the streets create an image, and contribute to the dilemmas of the characters. As Jean Valjean is cornered at the end of a street, the description allows a clear picture of his unlikely, but possible, escape. Hugo’s lengthy descriptions of the surroundings would now be considered an interruption to the pacing of the story.

A solution to this is by injecting action into the description. Either by interrupting the descriptive prose with events or movements, or by utilizing the interactions of the characters with the surroundings to describe the scenery. This also helps in reducing passive voice, which is frequently one of my tendencies.


Details that enhance the understanding of the situation is exposition. But as readers, we expect to understand the reason for the exposition a lot sooner rather than later. To write like Victor Hugo means writing thorough portrayals of the circumstance from which a character enters or emerges. Such as how the convent where Cosette receives her education is vividly illustrated as strict, efficient, and independent.

Since the rules of writing today suggest to go on a need-to-know basis, we don’t have the same depth of understanding. However, the one benefit to this, is we spend more time with the characters rather than their circumstance. What I noticed while reading Les Miserables is that I had strong connections with the characters because I knew them from the songs and movies before I even read the book. Most of the emotion I experienced while reading the novel was thinking that the scene or situation sounded awful.


An entire chapter is dedicated to illustrating that characters who live on the street have a language of their own. Including various tangents, Victor Hugo utilized a cast of characters with differing positions within the same story line. A fugitive, a young rebel, a criminal, an upstanding old-fashioned citizen, an innocent young woman, and an inspector. All of which had a unique perspective and motivation.

Writing like Victor Hugo, like he has in Les Miserables, would require a number of character arcs and themes. Such arcs would include the redemption of the sinner, the heroic journey, from riches to rags and back to riches, and a tragedy, among others. Themes of justice, living up to morals, kindness, and love are all expressed strongly with the cast of characters.

Victor Hugo is and always will be a genius of literature with wonderful masterpieces. We all have plenty to learn from him and other writers. But, there are always some aspects that we cannot replicate. I encourage everyone to read to enjoy incredible stories, and read to write! But be sure to also write to read for your current audience.

6 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Write Like Victor Hugo”

          1. 1. Hunchback of Notre Dame
            2. Bleak House
            3. Hard Times
            4. Nicholas Nickleby
            5. Oliver Twist
            6. David Copperfield
            7. A Christmas Carol
            8. Great Expectation
            9. Tale of Two Cities
            10. Don Quixote
            11. The Iliad
            12. The Odyssey

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