Characterization vs. character development.
Stories about humans require characterization–gender, appearance, background, abilities. But in literary fictional stories, the characters also develop–they change their emotional and intellectual souls, as well as their desires and motivations, which are instrumental in plot progression (character-based plot).
Drama is conflict that results in action and resolution and is essential for plot but also advances character. Opportunities for conflict prevail at many levels of telling a story—plot, scene, dialog, prose, imagery, etc. and character development is most effective in dramatized story action rather than passive narrator-telling. Note how clear plot conflicts contribute to greatness in these novels. The Scarlet Letter. When the husband sees Hester’s shame, he asks a man in the crowd about her and is told the story of his wife’s adultery. He angrily exclaims that the child’s father, the partner in the adulterous act, should also be punished and vows to find the man. Moby Dick. … Ahab … announces he is out for revenge on the white whale which took one leg from the knee down and left him with a prosthesis fashioned from a whale’s jawbone. (Both descriptions excerpted from Wikipedia.)
Literary writers strive to bring readers into stories to immerse a reader in a fictional dream and create works that have a greater meaning to more people than expected when first written. Analysis of any work of fiction reveals one or more essential universal struggles–friendship, family, money, identity, spirituality, liberty, sex, death, and others–that put characters at risk of danger—mental, emotional, physical. These are the magma of story action and resultant resolution, and almost always associate with reader access and involvement in the story world.
Suspension of disbelief.
Literary stories are frequently more meaningful when readers believe in characters and events in a story world. Successful genre writers of Sci-Fi or fantasy (such as Ray Bradbury) please story readers able to suspend belief that story and characters either are real or could be real from worlds not yet proven to exist. These successful stories entertain and delight. Literary fiction is imagined people and events and is constructed so there is pervasive belief the story could be real in the reader’s world. No need for suspension of disbelief. about the possible existence of a character. The advantage is fortifying meaning and theme in the literary story. Literary fiction has evolved over centuries at the least to enlighten new understanding–an epiphany, a new way of thinking or behaving, or an aroused emotional response–that expands knowledge of the human condition.
Superman is a memorable creation but readers gain little knowledge about the complexities of human action and emotions from his stories. Captain Ahab, or Emma Bovary, are fictional characters who could be “real” without suspension of disbelief … and are intensely human.
Author and story.
Writers usually write memoirs about themselves; literary writers write about characters who are not the author and are created in environments imagined and created (often inspired by reality) for enhancement of story purpose. Contemporary writers tend to blur the two processes often muting the potential effects of both memoir and fiction and thwarting story purpose.
No one can know which contemporary written works will be considered great literature in the future. It’s essential that writers rely on doing their own thing, that includes making their stories unique and fascinating. But study of great fiction from the past suggests writers do better to think about literary story as a process of imagination rather than a transcription of reality, and most important, to learn that techniques and attitudes about fiction matured from past won’t hurt the success of the “literature” of the future … whatever that might be.
“The Amish Girl” by William H. Coles. A short story available free online for reading, PDF, or listening (MP3). Illustration by Dilleen Marsh.