Literary Fiction

Are you someone who enjoys the development of a fictional character more than the story? Then you are a fan of literary fiction

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Table of contents

    Literary fiction includes books that are character-driven and study the human condition. Important elements of literary fiction include literary devices, plot, and narrative.

    Literary fiction: meaning

    Where did the term come from, when did it become popular, and how is it used today?

    Literary fiction - Literary fiction is a term that refers to literature that is character-driven and often studies the human condition. These works will have an introspective tone.

    Examples of works of literary fiction include Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut and Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce.

    Literary fiction is sometimes referred to as 'non-genre' fiction, as it refers to stories that do not fit into one specific genre. The story in a piece of literary fiction will be driven by the character, not the action of the tale. Arguably, the first literary fiction novel was Don Quixote (1605-1615) written by Miguel de Cervantes. This story followed the character Don Quixote, whose experiences and introspection drive the action of the story.

    Since Don Quixote's release in 1615, the novel has contributed to an influential mode of narration. Due to this, literary fiction has developed rapidly alongside the novel. As literary fiction grew, different characteristics and types emerged alongside, including contemporary, realistic, experimental, and philosophical fiction. However, at its core, all literary fiction will in some way study the human condition and the society we live in.

    Literary fiction: elements

    Let's look at the different elements that make up literary fiction.


    Narratives found in works of literary fiction will be driven by the characters. This means that the novel will focus on the innermost thoughts and lives of the characters rather than the action of the story.

    Narrative - an account of connected events. Sometimes the word is used to describe how someone tells a story.

    Novels that are written as character-based narratives will have a more introspective tone than other books. An example of a character-driven narrative is Ottessa Moshfegh's 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The novel follows a protagonist who wishes to sleep for one year. This means that the novel's narrative is driven by the internal thoughts and development of the protagonist. Consider the extract below:

    Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.


    Plot - The plot is the sequence of events, including the events' causes and effects.

    As the narrative of a work of literary fiction is driven by the characters, this means that there is no fixed plot formula in these novels. The action of the novel does not have to occur in a specific order or way. Authors of literary fiction works can use non-linear storytelling in their works.

    Non-linear storytelling is when the plot of the novel is told out of order. For example, the effects of an event may be seen before its cause. An example of this is in Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut. The plot of this novel is told nonlinearly, as the story's protagonist is travelling through his memories. Consider this quote:

    And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.


    Works of literary fiction tend to focus on a few central themes.

    Theme - the central ideas explored in the story.

    Themes explored in literary fiction include the human condition, history, and culture. Many novels use the inner lives of their story's characters to explore these ideas. Novels such as The Trial (1925) by Franza Kafka discuss themes of humanity and the absurd through existentialist philosophy. This is to say that the novel is used to discuss the philosophy that the world is irrational and no person truly knows their own self.

    It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.

    Literary devices in fiction

    Literary devices are found in all pieces of fiction.

    Literary devices - the different writing techniques that are used to convey meaning. A metaphor is an example of a literary device.

    However, there are specific devices that are used heavily within literary fiction. These devices are used to allow the author to explore a more character-driven, introspective plot. The literary devices found most often in literary fiction are metaphor and symbolism.


    Metaphor - A literary device where an object is compared to something else, for example, 'he was magnetic'.

    Metaphors are used in literary fiction to further explore the core themes of the novel. As metaphors are a literary device that rely on comparison, they can be used to better describe what is happening to the characters in the story.

    An example of this can be found in Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding. In this quote, a metaphor is used to show how the characters feel lost and confused when going out into the night:

    ...the darkness and desperate enterprise gave the night a kind of dentist's chair unreality.


    Symbolism differs from metaphor as no comparison is being made here.

    Symbolism - A literary device where an object is used to represent an idea or theme.

    This literary device can be found frequently in literary fiction as symbols can be used to represent themes in the story.

    In The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by JD Salinger, the protagonist's red hunting hat is a symbol of both his self-identification and alienation. The protagonist's hat makes him stand out from everyone else; however, he finds comfort in wearing this.

    I don’t know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it...

    Types and examples of literary fiction

    The following section examines four types of literary fiction, namely contemporary, realistic, experimental, and philosophical.


    Contemporary literary fiction - This refers to literary fiction that discusses timely social, ethical and political moments.

    Contemporary literary fiction includes novels that are responding to current social or political questions. Novels written in this way may discuss themes of class, gender, sexuality, or race.

    Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh follows the lives of drug addicts in Edinburgh. The novel discussed themes of class, addiction, and masculinity, three themes that were relevant to Scotland in the 1990s. Another example of a work of contemporary literary fiction is The Virgin Suicides (1993) by Jeffrey Eugenides. This novel explored themes of gender, sexuality, and memory in suburban America. A quote from The Virgin Suicides (1993):

    They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn't help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us.


    Realistic literary fiction - Literary fiction that centres on real life. These works are sometimes biographies or coming-of-age stories.

    Realistic literary fiction is fiction that aims to show life 'as it is'. These works will typically use an omniscient narrator who will relay the character's thoughts and feelings.

    One of the most famous works of realistic literary fiction is War and Peace (1867) by Leo Tolstoy. This novel relays the lives of the Russian aristocracy during the Napoleonic wars. The book is famous for how it closely reflects the actual historical events it is based on, making it a work of realistic literary fiction.

    Many realistic literary fiction narratives are biographical, such as The Bell Jar (1963). This novel is a coming of age story, that follows a young woman and her declining mental health. It is thought by many critics that the protagonist's journey is partially inspired by Plath's own life. A quote from The Bell Jar:

    If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.


    Experimental literary fiction - This type of literary fiction will experiment with the conventions of storytelling. This may include placing visual art or poetry in a novel.

    The aim of experimental literary fiction is to challenge the reader and their previous conceptions of storytelling. Experimental literary fiction will question tropes, traditions, and genre rules. This is done through means such as non-linear narrative structures or including other media in the novel.

    One of the most famous examples of experimental literary fiction is Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce. The novel follows the protagonist around Dublin for one day. However, it is stylistically dense with each of the novel's 18 sections having a different structure, such as an expressionist play, or being stream of consciousness. Joyce also invented his own words when writing the novel.

    An exquisite dulcet epithalame of most mollificative suadency for juveniles amatory whom the odoriferous flambeaus of the paranymphs have escorted to the quadrupedal proscenium of connubial communion.


    Philosophical literary fiction - This refers to literary fiction that questions human nature as well as the society the author lives in.

    Philosophical literary fiction will explore philosophical ideas through a fictional narrative. In literary fiction, this tends to involve stories that examine the human condition, free will, and what it means to exist.

    George Orwell's novel 1984 (1949) explores the philosophical idea of determinism. This is the idea that all events are determined by factors outside of free will.

    Another example of philosophical literary fiction is The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus. Camus' novel is based on the philosophy that there is no meaning to life, except to exist. Consider this quote from it:

    I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.

    Literary fiction: books

    Let's take a look at some popular books of literary fiction.

    Giovanni's Room (1956) - James Baldwin

    Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

    James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room (1956) is an example of contemporary literary fiction. It fits into this category as it follows the life of an American man in Paris in the 1950s. The novel follows him as he begins an affair, and tries to explore his sexuality. This novel is contemporary literary fiction as it explores themes of masculinity and sexuality, which would have been hotly debated topics in the 1950s.

    Catch-22 (1961) - Joseph Heller

    It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.

    Catch-22 (1961) is a piece of experimental literary fiction, as many events in the novel are repeated from different points of view. The novel is a satirical take on war and follows a soldier named Yossarian through World War II. During the novel, Yossarian is then placed in ever more illogical and absurd situations. The novel explores themes of religion, war, and death to discuss the dangers of a bureaucracy and absolute control.

    Things Fall Apart (1958) - Chinua Achebe

    There is no story that is not true, [...] The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.

    Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe is a work of realistic literary fiction. Achebe's novel explores pre-colonial life in Nigeria, as well as the arrival of European colonists during the late 1800s. This is a work of realistic literary fiction as it reflects the real-life events that occurred in Nigeria during this time period. The novel uses this setting to explore themes of language, generational differences, and colonisation.

    Literary fiction vs genre fiction

    Genre fiction - These are plot-driven fictional works that fit into a specific literary genre, such as horror or romance.

    Genre fiction is a popular category of novel that can be found anywhere books are sold in your day to day life. It refers to novels that fit into specific genres, such as horror, or comedy. Works of genre fiction will use clearer plot structures than literary fiction. These types of novels are not character-driven, but rather driven by the action of the story.

    However, genre fiction and literary fiction are not mutually exclusive categories, and novels can fit into both categories at once. A notable example of this is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). This novel is a work of literary fiction, while also belonging to the horror novel genre.

    Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.

    Literary fiction: impact and relevance

    While genre fiction may be more popular, literary fiction still has an important role in literature. Works of literary fiction are important as they are typically novels that endure over the centuries. Novels such as Don Quixote and Ulysses were written over 100 years ago, and are still relevant today. Literary fiction is also important due to how innovative the form can be. Experimental literary fiction allows authors to be more creative when presenting a story.

    Literary Fiction - Key takeaways

    • Literary fiction refers to character-driven stories.
    • Types of literary fiction include contemporary, realistic, experimental, and philosophical.
    • Works of literary fiction address themes to do with human nature.
    • Works of literary fiction will use literary devices such as metaphor and symbolism.
    • It is different to genre fiction, as it does not fit one specific genre.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Fiction

    What is the difference between literary fiction and fiction?

    Fiction is a term that refers to any piece of writing based on imaginary people or events. Literary fiction refers to fictional literature that is character-driven and often studies the human condition.  

    What are 3 types of literary fiction?

    Three types of literary fiction include experimental, realistic, and philosophical literary fiction. 

    What is literary fiction?

    Literary fiction is a term that refers to literature that is character-driven and often studies the human condition. These works will have an introspective tone. 

    What is the literary fiction genre?

    Literary fiction is a genre of works that is character-driven and often studies the human condition. These works will have an introspective tone. 

    What are examples of fiction literature? 

    An example of literary fiction is Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: There has to be a fixed plot formula in literary fiction.  

    Can nonlinear narratives exist in works of literary fiction?

    True or False: Novels can be literary fiction and genre fiction at the same time.


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