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Fictional Devices

If you were to build a house, you would likely need a lot of raw materials, such as wood, brick, concrete, etc. and a toolkit to assemble everything. The same is true for fictional narratives and stories. An author uses numerous tools to piece the story together before it is ready to be read. These tools are called fictional devices. Let's explore some of the most important fictional devices prevalent in fictional narratives.

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Fictional Devices

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If you were to build a house, you would likely need a lot of raw materials, such as wood, brick, concrete, etc. and a toolkit to assemble everything. The same is true for fictional narratives and stories. An author uses numerous tools to piece the story together before it is ready to be read. These tools are called fictional devices. Let's explore some of the most important fictional devices prevalent in fictional narratives.

Meaning of fictional devices

Real-life events may or may not inspire a work of fiction. As most works of fiction stem from the author's imagination, the author needs to flesh out details of the fictional devices they will use to narrate the story.

Fictional devices are elements of fiction that help an author weave a coherent story or narrative.

The diversity of fictional devices produces a wide range of fictional narratives that may cater to the tastes of different types of readers. Depending on how the author tailors the fictional device, the story may be an easy read or a complex puzzle the reader must piece together.

Elements and examples of fictional devices

The key elements or types of fictional devices and related examples are listed below.

Plot

The plot refers to the cause-and-effect events that drive the story of a fictional narrative.

A German playwright named Gustav Freytag evolved a method to analyse the plot of fictional narratives. This method is known as Freytag's pyramid.

Freytag's pyramid

Freytag's pyramid is called so because you can imagine the analysis points as a pyramid, as displayed in the image below.

Let us explore Freytag's pyramid with the help of the example of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) by J. K. Rowling.

  • Exposition is the setting of the premise for the story. In the Harry Potter novel, the premise is set for the novel and the rest of the series. The reader learns early on that a dark wizard named Voldemort is responsible for the deaths of Harry's parents and that Harry must attend a school of magic to become a wizard and defeat Voldemort, which is the exposition.

  • As the name suggests, rising action marks the escalation of events in the story. Harry attends Hogwarts, makes friends, learns magical spells, and encounters trolls and slain unicorns as he begins to uncover his personal history with Voldemort and a plot to steal the philosopher's stone hidden in the castle.

  • Climax refers to the high point in the plot that the rising action leads up to. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the climax occurs when Harry meets Voldemort before the Mirror of Erised and confronts him.

  • As opposed to rising action, falling action marks the de-escalation of events after the climax. When Harry wakes up in the hospital wing, and Dumbeldore explains what transpired with the stone, it is a case of falling action.

  • The denouement is the conclusion of the plot. At the end of the novel, the denouement is indicated when Harry boards the Hogwarts Express to return to the Dursley's after the school year is over.

Consider the plot of the last novel you read and try to frame it through the lens of Freytag's pyramid. Can you imagine how the author may have used Freytag's pyramid to develop the plot before writing the story?

Character

Characters are crucial to every story, as readers often try to relate to the story through the perspective of a character.

Characters refer to the people, animals, or any sentient beings in a fictional narrative. The events that occur in the lives of the characters and their experiences drive the plot forward.

While there are many character types to choose from, such as the 'mad scientist' or the 'damsel in distress' or the 'brave warrior,' largely characters are divided into round characters and flat characters.

Round characters

Let's explore what a round character does for a narrative.

Round characters are characters that develop as the plot progresses. They undergo a profound change due to their experiences and struggles in the story. Round characters may change for the better or for the worse. Round characters have more nuances to them and are well developed and complex.

Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen is an example of a round character. She starts out as a stubborn young woman who easily judges and builds prejudices against Mr. Darcy. As the novel progresses, she learns to hold off her biases and overcome her prejudices against him.

Flat characters

Flat characters can be seen as the opposite of round characters.

A flat character's personality is two dimensional and does not undergo a dramatic change in the narrative. Flat characters are usually insignificant to the story and lack depth. They are often seen as 'stock characters' to fill a particular role in the narrative, such as 'the sidekick' or 'the comic relief.'

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother in Shakespeare's play Hamlet (c. 1599) is a flat character as she remains under the strong influence of Hamlet's uncle. Her behaviour or personality does not dramatically change even after the death of her husband or the threats faced by her son.

It is important to remember that a good fictional narrative balances round and flat characters. The characters significant to the story, such as the protagonist or the antagonist are likely to be round characters. In contrast, the stock characters are likely to be flat and fulfil a purpose in the narrative.

Setting

The setting refers to the space where the story takes place.

Settings can be of different varieties and sizes. A setting may be as limited as a drawing room of an apartment or as large as a cosmopolitan city.

For example, the upper-class society in Victorian England is the setting of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

In works of Gothic fiction, the setting, which is most likely to be a manor, mansion or castle, also plays the role of the character in the sense that it has a foreboding personality, and it enhances the sensory experiences of the characters inhabiting the space. It is almost as if the setting is interacting with the characters. An example of this is the Eel Marsh house in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (1983).

Point of view

How is the story conveyed to the reader? Who chooses the words of the story? This is where point of view comes in.

The point of view refers to the perspective through which the story is narrated.

A fictional story may contain a single point of view or multiple points of view. There may or may not be an external narrator through whom the reader experiences the story. Furthermore, the author may make the narrator unreliable to play tricks with the reader.

  1. An example of an unreliable narrator is the 'everyday man' narrator in Fight Club (1996) by Chuck Palahnuik.
  2. George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (1996) is an example with multiple points of view. Each chapter presents the reader with the perspective of a different character, such as Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister or Brandon Stark.
  3. John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) features an external narrator who exists outside the central part of the story's events.

Conflict

The conflict is a vital aspect of the fictional narrative. The conflict presents the story's main characters with a mission or a goal. They must overcome many obstacles and resolve the conflict to achieve their goals. The character may conflict with themselves, another character, their circumstances or society, or any otherworldly or celestial beings.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), the titular character faces a conflict against himself and his inner demons and the excellent emphasis society places on beauty and the vitality of youth.

Do you think Dorian Gray successfully resolves the conflict at the novel's end?

Uses of fictional devices

Fictional devices have the following uses:

  1. Fictional devices help the author plan the story and flesh out its details.
  2. Fictional devices help the reader make sense of the story and its components.
  3. Fictional devices help the author layer the story with a deeper meaning or a profound truth.
  4. Fictional devices are deconstructed by literary scholars when they analyse a work of fiction.
  5. Fleshing out the fictional devices and developing them is what differentiates an excellent fictional narrative from a bad one.

If you were to begin writing a novel, setting out which fictional devices to use and how to construct your story is an excellent place to start. Nearly all authors begin working on their first drafts by polishing up their story ideas by detailing the fictional devices they employ.

Fictional Devices - Key takeaways

  • Fictional devices are elements of fiction that help an author weave a coherent story or narrative.
  • Elements of fictional devices include plot, character, setting, point of view and conflict.
  • A plot may be unpacked with the use of Freytag's pyramid.
  • A character may be a flat or a round character.
  • Fleshing out fictional devices is a good place to start working on the first draft of a novel.

Frequently Asked Questions about Fictional Devices

Elements or devices of fiction include plot, character, setting, point of view, and conflict.

Fictional devices are the building blocks of a fictional narrative. You may identify them by the elements of fictional devices such as plot, character, or setting.

Examples of fictional devices include round characters, flat characters, first-person narrators, third-person narrators, character vs. self-conflict etc.

The types of fictional devices are plot, character, setting, point of view, and conflict.

If you were to begin writing a novel, setting out which fictional devices to use and how to construct your story is an excellent place to start. Nearly all authors begin working on their first drafts by polishing up their story ideas by detailing the fictional devices they employ.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Multiple choice (more than one answer may be correct):  Limited narrative is very useful for 

Choose (more than one answer is possible): satire was popular in the 18th century with writers like

Nightmare Abbey is a parody of... (there is more than one answer is possible). 

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What is an example of an allegory?

  • John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) explores the allegory of the pilgrim that protagonist, Christian, takes from his hometown , 'City of Destruction', which represents the human world, to another city, 'Celectial City', which represents heaven.
  • George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) depicts animals, who can speak, and their experience on the farm, as an allegory for the events and people of the Russian Revolution of 1917. 
  • The Somonyng of Everyman (1510)- Unknown author: The character, Everyman, represents humans as they come face to face with death and final judgement, and also personifies abstract qualities of Beauty, Good Deeds and Knowledge. Everyman is used to express these abstract concepts. 
  • The Faerie Queene (1590)- Edmund Spenser: The characters in this epic poem, specifically the Arthurian knights, are used as an allegory to explore vices and virtues. For example, the Red Cross Knight represents Holiness. 

What is the difference between allegory and symbolism?

Symbolism is when an object, occurrence or action represents something beyond itself. Symbolism specifically uses symbols to do this, for example, a crown representing a monarch An allegory is different from symbolism because it makes extensive use of symbolism through characters to express a broader meaning.  

How do symbols function within an allegory?


Symbols can be used as a tool when creating an allegory. An object, occurrence or action can be used to represent an abstract meaning or idea. For example, a book representing knowledge, or a crown representing a monarch. An allegory constructs a broad narrative that can be consistent throughout the text.  

What could you write an allegory about?


You could write an allegory about a moral theme or idea or a historical event. 

What is the difference between allegory and metaphor?


 A metaphor compares two seemingly unrelated things to express an idea. An allegory uses a broader narrative, often in the form of a character, to express an idea or teach a lesson. 

What is an example of the use of allegory in Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave in Republic (Book 7) (~380 BCE)?


The allegory represents how people live in the world and perception of reality in contrast to one’s interpretation of reality.

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