Monday, July 13, 2020

Writing Lessons from Hamilton

Hamilton's release on Disney+ allowed those of us who haven't made it to New York a chance to peek at the phenomenon. 

The phenomenon was phenomenal.


Since Hamilton's Broadway debut, the play’s been molten lava running down my Facebook feed. And I agree. The storytelling explosively volcanic. I couldn't look away. And the story has stayed with me long afterward. 


The play has ripples of awe through our culture the past five decades. Playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists— after picking their jaw off the floor—dismember the work. Literary critics feel, as do I, that it is on par with Shakespeare’s work.

So, what lessons, as writers, can we shamelessly steal from Hamilton? At least two million. Here are two.


Two Lessons from Hamilton


#1—History is alive. Bwahahaaha. It's alive! 

History never died. We're eager to discover how something happened, why those things came about, so we understand better what today's answers are to difficult questions. Hamilton touches on slavery and racial issues, the Constitution, fidelity, friendship, honor and courage, personal ambition, phycological trauma of loss, and more—fascinating conversations for us all.


What does this mean for your fiction? Connecting the past to issues today must be done without preaching. Consider thinking in terms of cause/effect or if/then. Pretend you're reading a biography of me. Peter wrote a book, and you see his children watching their dad as they grow, then go off to do things that seem far above their station in life. Readers would easily connect the idea that because their father made his dreams come true, whatever wild imaginations they have can come true as well. This touches class issues, family dynamics, and gender identity. 


#2–Old narratives no longer suffice. Old stories are no longer complex enough to shed light on today's challenges.

American folklore is simple with modest truths. I love them so much. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Love it. And Davey Crocket. Disney's version was the best, ever. We love the character’s perfection woven in the tales. 

New world. Hamilton showed us that by making complex characters of success and failure, sin and saint in one person, is just fine for a classic piece of Americana. Like the Bible, we’re given realistic characters in difficult circumstances and few good answers. The reality of rebelling against a nation and going to war is as complex as it is terrifying, and to undermine the decisions the men and women had to make by stripping away the intricacy of the gray areas they walked is to remove the tools from today’s society from which we can learn.


What does this mean for your fiction? To make a perfect character in a novel is to undermine the truth. And while many turn to fiction for escape, Hamilton showed that we can escape into a complex story with a fresh narrative and not only learn about America’s history and learn from it, we can be highly entertained as well.

(Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton is rated PG-13 due to language and some suggestive material.)

Peter Leavell, a 2007/2020 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history and a MA in English Literature, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild's Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing's Best award for First-Time Author, along with multiple other awards. An author, blogger, teacher, ghostwriter, jogger, biker, husband and father, Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter's books, research, and family adventures at