Not long ago, I was listening to Hamilton: An American Musical non-stop all the way through, and while I was listening, I realized three fundamental (writing) truths at the exact same time.
Forced references aside, for those unfamiliar with it, Hamilton is a hip-hop musical that tells the story of the American historical figure Alexander Hamilton. The musical gained popularity when it first debuted on Broadway in 2015 due to its unique music, diverse cast, fascinating story, and modern relevancy. I’ve been interested in it for a few months now, and while listening to it, I’ve noticed there are a lot of great storytelling lessons to be learned from it.
Hamilton is heavily based on historical events, and for the most part is accurate to the facts. However, it is still fictionalized in some ways, and for the purpose of this blog post, I’m focusing on the way that characters, events, and storytelling is presented in the musical. If I say something that’s inaccurate to history, just remember that I’m solely basing these observations on the musical.
Also, as a minor disclaimer: if you haven’t listened to Hamilton before, there are a number of instances with crude language, so just know that going in.
Lesson 1 – Strong Female Characters
In fiction, there’s this trend that strong women can only appear in one form: they must be a hardcore lady who will fight every man they see, be completely emotionless, and hate everything traditionally feminine. But is that the only way to have a “strong female character?”
Like most women in the 1700s & 1800s, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s wife) is a stay-at-home mom, raising her family while her husband works. And she’s one of my favorite examples of a strong female character.
“But Maggie,” I hear you say, “Don’t strong female characters have to be independent and work outside the home? They’re not supposed to be stuck at home taking care of children!”
First of all, Eliza is the one taking care of the home while her husband is working, and that’s pretty hard work in itself. But even more than that, her strength of character is illustrated in the aftermath of various events in the musical. Eliza goes through a lot of nonsense: her husband has an extramarital affair that eventually becomes public knowledge, becoming one of the first big political scandals in the United States. Not long after that, her oldest son, nineteen-year-old Philip, overhears someone insulting his father and challenges the man to a duel. In the duel, Philip is killed, partly due to his father’s advice directing him to “fire his weapon in the air.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were in Eliza’s position, I’d be the heck outta there. But what does she do? Despite being heartbroken, Eliza still forgives her husband and stays with him even though he’s made so many mistakes. I’d say that makes her a pretty strong character.
The Takeaway: When creating female characters, remember that they don’t have to be physically strong or emotionless to be considered “strong.” They can feel heartbreak, they can be feminine, and they can be forgiving and compassionate while still being strong. It’s a different type of strength, but it’s just as valid as any other.
Lesson 2 – Character Foils
In literary analysis, a foil is a character who contrasts with another, usually the protagonist, in order to highlight certain characteristics. Often, the two characters will share a number of similarities with a few key differences.
In Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, the protagonist, has a foil in his friend and political rival, Aaron Burr. This is set up from the very beginning of the musical, when it’s established that both characters are orphans, and both of them want to make their mark on the world. Hamilton, however, is more brash and outspoken, whereas Burr prefers to wait before making his move and choosing his allegiances.
The interactions between Hamilton and Burr throughout the play highlight each characters’ important qualities for the audience. Not only that, but their differences grow as Burr becomes increasingly frustrated with Hamilton’s political success, and it leads to the final duel where Burr kills Hamilton in the final minutes of the musical.
The Takeaway: Does your protagonist have a foil? It’s not necessary, but it can be helpful if you want to have a way to show more of your protagonist’s key characteristics. It also doesn’t have to be your main antagonist, the foil can be a secondary or even tertiary character.
Lesson 3 – In Summary…
Act I of Hamilton closes with the song “Non-Stop,” which covers roughly six years of history in approximately six and a half minutes. Like I said before, I’m not focusing on the actual historical facts, but what’s fascinating about “Non-Stop” is that it is able to summarize important information for the audience in an effective way.
By summarizing, “Non-Stop” gives the audience information they need to know in a way that doesn’t slow down the story. It sticks to the points that move the plot forward or build character, like the verses that cover Hamilton & Burr’s respective law careers and the competitive nature of their relationship. The parts that cover the establishment of the United States Constitution not only give the audience background, but they also show the disparity between Hamilton and Burr and their political stances (or lack thereof). Finally, we learn that Eliza’s beloved sister, Angelica, is leaving for England and Hamilton has become Secretary of the Treasury. This leaves Eliza feeling alone and helpless, foreshadowing tension in their marriage.
The Takeaway: If you need to summarize events or go through them quickly, think about what you want to do with those points. How do they establish information about the plot or characters? Make your summaries effective, don’t just skim over things for the sake of doing so.