A Prescription for Creating Great Literary Fiction

Fiction writers imagine. And it’s in the realm of the imagination that stories and characters are not stifled by the constraints of describing real people and real events. Fiction creates its own “reality” with purpose to create meaningful, engaging, unique stories.


Literature is written work considered to have lasting artistic merit.
Fiction is imagined events and people.


Great literary stories that last for generations have hard-to-achieve imagined and created elements for characterization and plot development that will shape the thoughts, memory, and even actions of readers.


1) Character-based story. In essence, literature stories are about people. Great stories have characters who do more than just react to plot events. Instead, character’s souls and personalities, sometimes innocence or refusal to learn and believe, cause plot reactions. Here’s a simple example—Little Red Riding Hood.

Plot based. Red leaves her home to visit grandma. On the path through the woods a wolf discovers her destination. He runs ahead and when Red arrives, he devours her.

Character-based. Red is determined to go to grandma’s house through the woods. Her mother is apprehensive and tells her not to dally, not to talk to strangers, and to run away from danger. Red puts her sore feet in a stream on the way and stops to pick bluebells. She meets a wolf and tells him of her excitement at visiting grandma. She thinks the wolf is her friend. The wolf leaves to be at grandma’s when she arrives, pretends to be grandma, and devours Red.

In the second scenario, Red’s disobeys her mother, fails to run from danger, and her innocence about danger and her lack of fear for the dangers in the world cause her death. A character-based lot.

Fictional characters who drive plots? Madame Bovary. Captain Ahab. Hester Prynne. Anna Karenina. Flem Snopes.

2) Character enlightenment. Fatalistic plot points and marionette-character development are avoided. Does the character’s understanding about the world or human nature shift, does a character’s perception of the world and other living things change; is there a change in morality, etc.

Coming of age does not guarantee significance if the character stumbles through life’s transitions into adulthood. Something must happen that corresponds to the author’s purpose in writing the literary story. Essentially, the character often leaves a shallow, hollow shell and moves into a thoughtful, rich existence brimming with thought and feeling.  It doesn’t have to be hurricane strength though; in fact subtlety can almost always heighten the effect of the character change on the reader. Great characters may also be presented with the opportunity to change but refuse, either willingly or unwillingly. But the failure to change must be due to the character’s nature and can’t be accidental.

3) Significant change of character. Being alive, time changes us all second by second. But for literature a change in character is best if profound as writer can make it without sentimentality or loss of credibility (that the character could be real). Events in the story are related to some character trait that often precipitates action that would not have occurred without recognition of “who I am and what I’ve done and whom I will become.”

Significance is often morally related, but also can be self-recognition of prejudice, injustice, intolerance, frustration, etc.

Harry Potter has far different effect on readers than Holden Caulfield, and one might surmise that Caulfield is a product of who he is, and Harry Potter is a character reacting to plot circumstances. Some readers enjoy connecting with a character’s heart-felt constitution and a feeling soul acting in an environment that could be real. Something for serious literary-fiction authors to think about in their creations.

Thanks for reading!

The Amish Girl

“The Amish Girl.” A short story William H. Coles. The protagonist changes learning about humanity and love. You can read or download for free the story online here: https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/original-stories-william-h-coles/the-amish-girl/

Illustration by Dilleen Marsh

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