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Literary Life Hacks

Fiction's famous characters* could have benefitted from our golden era of easy fixes. Learn from what they didn't know.

1. An orphan forced to toil endlessly in a savage workhouse, you're constantly hungry and exhausted. After a game of chance with fellow orphans, you ask for more gruel from the wicked beadle Mr. Bumble, who denies your request.

#Lifehack: Build a “yes” ladder. People are more inclined to agree to favors if they’ve already answered in the affirmative to a series of lower-stakes inquiries. Start by asking Mr. Bumble simple questions like, “Are orphans good at picking oakum?” before moving to the riskier request for more food.

2. You and your Greaser friend Johnny hide out in an abandoned church in the country after Johnny stabs and kills a Soc during a fight. The church catches on fire with a group of children inside, and you and Johnny try to rescue them.

#Lifehack: Make your own fire extinguisher from household items. Pour 12 ounces of white vinegar into a jar. Loosely place a paper towel over the jar. Wrap a rubber band around the jar’s lip, then scoop 2 tablespoons of baking soda into the towel. Replace the lid. In case of fire, shake the jar, then open and pour over the blaze.

3. As a handsome young man in Victorian England, beauty and the pursuits of pleasure rule your life. Even as your narcissism hurts the people you love, you becomes more self-obsessed and isolated. The ravages of age are magically transferred to a portrait locked in the attic, and you maintain your good looks and youth as your world crumbles around you, sending you into an emotional tailspin.

#Lifehack: Make your own face scrub with lemon juice, ground-up oatmeal, sugar, kosher salt, honey, and olive oil. An abrasive face scrub removes dead skin from pores where dirt and grease may be hiding. This at-home remedy keeps wrinkles away without costing you your moral center.

4. During an ill-advised hike through the Yukon in the dead of winter, you fall through a sheet of ice, soaking your legs in freezing water. Building a fire is now crucial, but you fumble with the matches due to creeping hypothermia.

#Lifehack: Doritos make for surprisingly good kindling. They’re fried in oil, which ignites easily. Also, rubbing a 9-volt battery on steel wool creates a short circuit, sending the battery’s currents coursing through the metals and turning the bundle incandescent in seconds.

5. You keep  hearing the thumping heart of your neighbor, which is driving you crazy, literally. (It doesn’t help that he’s dead, and also, that you murdered him.)

#Lifehack: A white noise machine can help even the most restless sleeper. By providing a constant level of volume and frequency, it drowns out bothersome abrupt sounds that force your brain to identify something new, which disrupts your sleep. (A fan can provide the same constant hum.) Also, try layering a rubber floor mat underneath a heavy area rug to soundproof your floor—and whatever you have buried under it.

6. Your moody son, Hamlet, is feuding with your new husband, Claudius, whom Hamlet suspects of murdering your ex to assume the throne. Claudius hatches a plan to have Hamlet fence with the son of the king’s council, who will use a poison-tipped lance. He also prepares Hamlet a drink spiked with poison, but in the commotion—whoops!—you accidentally drinks the concoction. “No, no, the drink, the drink—O my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink! I am poisoned,” you say. Then you die.

#Lifehack: Keep a hair tie or rubber band around your wrist. Slip it around your drink so you know which is yours.

7. When your bratty cousin John attacks you, you fight back, but his pill of a mother catches you and locks you in the red room, where your beloved uncle died. Later, you're sent to a home for orphans.

#Lifehack: Pick the lock using hairpins. Bend one 60 degrees a centimeter from its end. Insert in lock; apply torque. Straighten other hairpin. Bite off nub; slide that end into keyhole. Maneuver to catch the lock’s barrel. Open the door; beat up cousin.

*1. Oliver in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. 2. Ponyboy in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. 3. Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. 4. Unnamed man in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” 5. Unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” 6. Gertrude in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” 7. Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

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The article above by Nick Greene with illustrations by Mike Rogalski appeared in the the November 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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