First, you have to have a grasp of what it is.
My English teacher at school, Steve Ridgeway, spent three years trying to convince me that English Literature was the best subject in the world. I hated every minute of it. Hated all the analysing, the digging around in historical events, the unearthing of metaphors, the excavating of the original authors’ motivations – which as far as I was prepared to see, was “Get into someone’s pants and end all this miserable artistic solitude.”
But I was paying attention all that time, just so I could be fully aware of what and why I was loathing the subject so much. Less than two years later, I wrote my first 110,000-word novel. And I started with my own issues, and motivation, and metaphors, before weaving a story around them – in exactly the way I’d been taught that literature was intended to develop.
In recent weeks, seeing the subject discussed online, I’m starting to wonder if in fact I was the ONLY one paying attention in class.
There’s an urban myth that literary fiction can be simplified and summarised as ‘character-driven, not plot-driven’.
Not true, in itself. If you’re going to construct literary fiction by method, you need to take it back a few steps from the mere concept of ‘complex characters’.
The characters themselves may be metaphors or illustrations of events the author has witnessed or experienced, the embodiment of personal demons or guardian angels, or even satirical/serious representations of real historical figures in another form – animal-form, child-form (see ‘Lord of the Flies’).
Those characters are a way for the author to illustrate and show interaction with forces outside of their own/the key character’s control, whether those are forces of good, evil, or apathy. You’re going to give voice and persona to issues you want to expose or confront through the medium of narrative – the issue might be ‘repression’ or ‘addiction’ or ‘vanity’ or ‘obsession’, for example.
The key character is going to go on a journey, either internal, external or both, with or via these other issues (supporting characters). The outcome for the key character in the story is growth/change/challenge (moral and/or physical). As well as his or her demons and guardians, what social and economic factors influence their progress?
If you have strong views on a certain aspect of your culture, what part of your own existing knowledge would you use in a metaphor for the situation in the story?
For instance: You might have a military background, and have a novel set in a supermarket stock warehouse. Instead of the team being run as you imagine a regular stock warehouse might be, it precisely reflects a military regime. That’s using your life experience to write two stories in one. You’re including your autobiographical experience and observations, which anyone in the military reading it would recognise, but also you are introducing it to an unsuspecting audience of less specific, day-in-the-life books, who might not read a military novel.
Another example would be if you wanted to write literary fiction set in a school, but you have experience of or have researched cults and sects. You don’t describe the school as a cult-affiliated school, or have wannabe wizards turning up there hoping to find out what happened to their missing parents. You write about a normal school. But the actions of the characters, as in the previous example, illustrate that there is another side to the story – that the school, the setting, the social culture within the walls, is a metaphor for a different story.
In a way, literary fiction is “mash-up” fiction. You tell an unfamiliar tale in the guise of a familiar one, a cloaking device to reach and educate audiences that you otherwise wouldn’t. You are breaking the class and culture barrier, in the hope that a greater audience than the one you would reach with only a single military story, or a single cult story, will identify with it – and through that identification, find common ground on both sides of the fence.
You also need to examine your motivation as the author. Pretty much most (grown-up) fiction (and some fairytales) involves something wanting to get into something else’s pants, so there won’t be any nagging about that right now – although you might want to read this first, and perhaps this as well. Maybe even this, if you really can’t stop yourself.
Because the author of literary fiction is of as much interest to the academic as the novel itself, and if like me, future generations of incandescently fuming students are going to be made to pick apart your work until everything you’ve ever done is bare bones laid out for everyone to see, you don’t subsequently want them stalking you on social media, turning up at your book signings or on your doorstep shouting unintelligible things about the state of your mind, the gutter it lives in, and your pants, until they have got it out of their systems and their medications kick in.
Put it this way – a desire to share your insight, wisdom, and life experience in the guise of another tale, to educate and find common ground across class and cultural boundaries, is a healthy motivation. I wouldn’t pin too much hope on becoming a millionaire overnight and installing electric security gates against the aforementioned angry insomniac English Lit students.
When creating your key character, don’t over-develop it. An overdone, well-rounded, too-realistic character is a thoroughly irritating one, and belongs in the pages of chick lit alongside all of their sidekick friends who only exist to help them through a crisis and to massage their egos over a coma-inducing Blossom Hill strawpedo session.
Take a step back.
If your character is ‘a tough nut, has learned things the hard way, is cynical and tired of life’, then SHOW US THAT BIT.
Tell us that story! Otherwise, your story is merely a series of exchanges and scenarios where your emotionally crippled character makes excuses for their lack of commitment to doing anything remotely exciting for the reader in the narrative. If your character has a back story, then in literary fiction, you NEED to go back and start there. Literature-wise, that’s where things were exciting, where the character learned their limitations, met their demons for the first time, found out what it took to continue living and functioning. That’s where your character became strong. If they start out strong and over-developed emotionally in your narrative, they’ve already alienated most of the insular and shy consumers of deep and literary prose. Be prepared to go back there and share the introduction of those insecurities. Don’t throw them in as deus ex machina later on. A cavalier treatment of back-story just looks like you made it up on the spur of the moment to insert conflict or barriers, to delay progress. Your key character’s journey leads the reader – let them be surprised by what the key character learns about supporting characters and events on their journey, from the point of view of understanding their narrative host, their morals and issues, the effect of personal change.
(Don’t just beat your main character with the ugly stick and give them a hard time in life purely due to that. It’s a metaphor for prejudice. We get it already. The Ugly Duckling went there and did that when we were five years old).
That’s probably what is meant by ‘character-driven’ when that phrase is casually tossed around to describe literary fiction. The way folk say it implies that character is more important than plot. But ‘plot’ has to happen to ‘character’ for the character to go on any journey at all.
In literary fiction, it’s not just social setting and character that is a scope for metaphor. Every event, object, place and dialogue exchange is a potential for analogy. A man may love his car in the anthropomorphic sense, but only think of his wife in terms of chassis and bodywork. A collector of commemorative china plates may find that a broken or missing one constitutes a lost year of real-life memories. Characters apply meaning and emotional connection to strange things, in disproportion to the other people around them. They may gain or lose prejudices on their journey, but it won’t be the obvious things (to the rest of us) which affect their points of view.
All of the senses are involved in the depiction of alternative interpretation and implication in the story. I remember a particularly annoying school term dedicated to the interpretation of cloud and sky descriptions in poetry, followed by four more weeks on the subject of flowers… It’s a ****ing daffodil couldn’t he have just said it was ****ing yellow??!! AAAAAaaaaaarrrgh!! (This rant was delivered by my 14-year-old self, almost verbatim, to my considerably academic grandparents, who are no doubt all smirking down at me right now).
I remember being given Aesop’s Fables when I was very small, and first started out reading – flash fiction with morals. That was what set me up for my understanding of literary fiction in later life. You tell a story which is not just a story – the story also has a message, but the message has ‘multiple attachments’ – it contains unlimited implied alternative scenarios and characters where the same moral is evident, reaching out to a wider and wider audience in its retelling and subsequent analysis.
More than anything else, literary fiction does its work on the author, even before it reaches the audience. You may find yourself in characters you thought were only minor, may hear issues you are uncomfortable about voiced as your own. By its nature of having multiple layers of metaphor and parallel meanings, there is a great deal of potential for psychosis in literary fiction, and you may find hidden meanings when you read it much later on your own personal journey that were not yours at the time of writing.
But don’t worry. That’s completely normal to observe too. Writing literary fiction casts a shadow of yourself, one of those special shadows that can morph into many different things – career-wise, it may fly high into the stratosphere or crawl away under a rock, depending on how much others see of themselves and of their known worlds in your depiction, and whether it gives them new insights.
But as the author, the insights you wrote into your future self are more interesting when you read it later on – so don’t pay too much attention when grumpy students/reviewers later describe it as ‘utter wank’ 😉 x