Oh, boy — this one’s an oldie. First published in 1977, The Thorn Birds tells the story of the Clearys, a poor family who move from New Zealand to work on a sheep station in the Australian Outback. It has about fifteen main characters, but primarily focuses on Meggie, a young girl who falls in love with a priest (gasp! quite the scandal in 1915).
When I read old bestsellers like this, I always like to imagine how much trouble the author would have querying them today. I mean, can you imagine the query for this one? Dear Modern Agent — I have written a sweeping family saga that spans fifty years, has about fifteen or twenty main characters, and is written in third-person omniscient POV. Oh, and by the way, it’s 280,000 words — and no, I won’t cut that number down. Sincerely, Colleen.
I mean, maybe her fabulous writing would’ve been enough for agents to get past that 280,000 word thing, but even still — it’s a very old-fashioned sort of book.
Nevertheless, it became an international bestseller for a reason — the writing is completely phenomenal. And every character – literally every last one – is memorable and unique. If you want a lesson in how to make your characters distinct, definitely give this a read. Colleen McCullough is also the queen of beautiful descriptions — I lived in Australia for some time, and all of the descriptions, the thoughtful little details…they put me right back there again. So good!
So, if you have a few days off this Christmas, and want a quick 280,000 word read (ha)… I definitely recommend The Thorn Birds.