In the George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back, the furry Wookiee, Chewbacca, holds the head of robot C-3PO in the same way that Hamlet is usually shown holding a skull. Many people assume that Hamlet recited his fateful soliloquy “To be or not to be…” as he stared at the skull. But, that occurs an act later. Actually, Hamlet said “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Yorick was the king’s jester, a bit of comic relief serving the same purpose as the protocol droid, C-3PO. This distinction is not important to understand the point of this allusion in The Empire Strike Back. Chewbacca was wrestling with the nature of life, death and existence, just as the doomed Danish prince did.
If you find yourself dangling too close to the edge of sanity trying to come up with the perfect words to describe your character, you can lean on what past writers have done. Allusions are the literary equivalent of name-dropping. Once, I heard an acquaintance refer to another person as an “Adonis.” Despite knowing over fifty people in common, I immediately knew who she was discussing. There was only one man in our circle handsome and charming enough to fit that comparison (and he just happened to be from Greece). Alluding to a well-known character, fictional or real, is a short cut that quickly gives the readers already developed concepts.
How do you determine to which characters or works you should make your allusions? You want to make sure enough people recognize the same literary characters that you do. Use your friendly internet to supply lists of the most famous people, both real and fictional. Then cross out anyone who wasn’t walking the earth or in a book more than one hundred years ago. Not only have you shortened your list dramatically, you have selected the people with staying power.
Is it necessary for readers to read the same books as you for this kind of name dropping to work? Not always. On almost any list of the famous classics that authors use for a source of allusions the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays sit on top. However, people who have never read either one still know that “Judas” is an epithet for a traitor, and “Romeo” describes a male with romantic intentions.
Of course, when you allude to a character from Shakespeare’s works, everyone knows that you aren’t claiming personal friendship with the playwright. But they may assume that you know his works quite well, when in truth you may not have read any of them, just like your reader. However, that is where the difficulty lies. Comparing a character to Romeo because he is old and lecherous is not the kind of romantic male that Shakespeare had in mind. Unless your you call him “Romeo” in a sarcastic manner, readers who have actually read Romeo and Juliet may start making fun of your work, or simply stop reading it.
If you are intent on using allusions you should be well-read. It is not enough to watch movies that pale in comparison to the work that inspired them. And, you must read the classics, not just recent best sellers. Finally, you must be aware of all the shades of behavior epitomizing the characters before you allude to them. Drawing on the already developed descriptions of classic characters will add depth to your writing. However , if used incorrectly, you simply sound pretentious.