The distinctive feature of literary writing is that it’s always character-driven. This means that character development, response, and experience are the primary aspects of the story. It’s important for writers to master this distinction because it sets commercial fiction apart from literary fiction.
What Makes a Story Character-Driven?
It’s important to emphasize how the characters behave to move the plot forward. The plot should not be in charge of pushing the characters forward.
Take “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, for example. The unnamed narrator lives with an elderly man who terrifies him. The man’s one blind eye is what terrifies the narrator, so much that he plans to kill the man to get rid of it. All of the events happen because the narrator is spiraling into madness. The character’s thoughts and actions create the creepy plot.
Instead, a plot-driven story focuses on what happens to the characters through the story’s action. It doesn’t focus on how the character’s thoughts and actions shape the story. This means it isn’t literary.
A good example of a plot-driven story is everybody’s favorite: Twilight. We all know Bella Swan is about as interesting as a cardboard box. Everything happens to her, but her character lacks literary depth to influence the story.
Of course, if you’re submitting to literary magazines, they will expect your story to be character-driven. Even if you have an interesting plot, the editors will expect your characters to stand out.
It’s hard for me to read superficial stories that don’t really have deeper meaning, even if the plot is entertaining. I want to finish reading something and think, wow. For this reason, non-literary stories can’t wow me in the way literary stories can. This distinction is important for separating the commercial from the influential.
Character is important to literary fiction, but there’s much more. Check out Jane Friedman’s article about what defines a literary novel.
Don’t Ignore the Plot!
This doesn’t mean you should have all character and no plot, either. The plot should stem from the character. The whole plot can be about two characters having a conversation without any actual action happening. If it’s character-driven, intellectual, and involves literary themes, it can work as a literary plot.
Some modern experimentalists like to write stories that seem to have no plot. But technically, the internal struggles and psychological distress of the characters does create plot.
An early Modernist example of this is Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall”. Almost nothing happens in this story. The unnamed narrator is sitting there staring at a mark on the wall. That’s the summary of the story’s external conflict. However, the internal conflict is much more complicated. Wondering about the mark on the wall makes the narrator assess her life, her thoughts, and explores complex literary themes. But nothing is actually happening.
Even if there is no action happening, it doesn’t matter. You can have a good story that creates conflict (and therefore plot) within the character, without some complex external plot.
Of course if you want to have a complex external plot, that works, too. But the point is to create plot based on the internal struggles of the character. Basically, literary fiction emphasizes literary themes over plot.
Genre fiction can be literary, too! Read my article on the big debate about genre vs. literary fiction.
Let Characters Speak for Themselves
A character with an interesting backstory is great, but it’s not the most important aspect of the character. It’s more important to show readers the character’s psychology and personality.
How did past events affect the character emotionally or psychologically? What effects did the character’s response to events have on the rest of his or her life?
Character development is always stressed, but for a good reason. A good story makes the characters realistic and authentic. By realistic, I mean that they seem as human as they claim to be. Full of flaws, full of complexities, never easily fit into a generic trope.
For my personal writing, Poe has always been my biggest inspiration. His stories are rich with creepy, dark themes. But those plots exist because his characters are inherently disturbed, questionable, unreliable, terrifying–you get it. I strive to achieve the same impact Poe’s stories make.
The plots of stories like “Ligeia” or “The Fall of the House of Usher” are disturbing because his characters make them so. And the wonderful part about it? His narrator characters usually never have names or complex backstories.
I’m not saying characters should always be nameless. But my own goal is to make characters whose actions speak for them and create the essence of the plot.
Realistic characters should be diverse–and most likely different from you. This article on Ashland Creek Press shares a few tips for creating authentic characters.
A good literary story is brought to life with characters that seem like they’d exist in the real world. Plot is not inherently literary. It’s the characters’ experiences and conflict that give it literary quality.
Got more to say about literary characters? Leave a comment and let’s have a discussion!