I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross,” and it’s really got me thinking about philosophical fiction, and what differentiates philosophical fiction from character-driven fiction.
I generally say that fiction should be character-driven. That’s certainly my personal approach to writing: I figure out who my characters are, struggle to understand the situation they are in, and then let then react as they would react given who I’ve decided they are.
If they aren’t doing what I want or need them to, most of the time I learn to go with that and trust “their” inclinations. If necessary, I tweak the circumstances that surround their choice.
My characters still need to make an organic, realistic choice, of course; by altering the criteria they have to factor in, I can intervene to alter the decision they come to (or rather, I can “make them do what I want” in a way that reads as sensible and logical.)
Philosophically-driven fiction is much different. On a basic level, those characters still have to read like real characters. Their decisions have to make sense given what plot line there is. But just as much as a philosophical novel tells a story, it also makes an argument. Sometimes it sacrifices story for the sake of argument. How justified a choice that is, of course, is a matter of opinion.
The plot line, however, has an entirely new significance in philosophical fiction, one far more drastic the plot line of a character-driven novel. The reader feels personally affected. Personally drawn in. The reader feels how something that lies at the core of him or her is at stake, or in the balance, or is challenged, torn down, or built up.
For instance, “The Ball and the Cross” is about a young Scotchman, a Catholic, who goes to London for the first time, reads the window of the office an atheist newsletter (where he sees a horrible insult against the Virgin Mary), and breaks the window. In court he challenges the editor of the paper to a duel.
This novel has me totally gripped. I feel like something of utmost importance is going on, even though the plot (by an action standpoint) is rather thin.
I feel as though it matters–honestly matters–how this book will end. Whether they ever are able to duel to the death, whether one of them survives, or they bury the hatchet, or they somehow kill each other, or both die before they can by some force of nature intervening: it is weighty.
The novel works because both men are respectable and decent men. Both recognize that the other is a respectable and decent man who simply happens to be wrong. If you know anything about Chesterton, you know he was a staunch Catholic, but his atheist character, James Turnbull, is not a strawman. He is a likeable man who is honestly trying to make what he believes would be a positive difference in the world.
You can tell Chesterton respects the character of Turnbull, and assuming you are Catholic and on the side of MacIan, the Catholic, you know he wants YOU to respect him too. He wants you to admire a number of aspects of his character, in fact.
Looking back, I realize that many of my favorite novels have philosophic veins, even if they are not fully philosophic novel.
- Les Miserables is incredibly philosophical, although I also love the pure story. It has a fox and hound police hunt plot, a war plot, a love story plot…. It is very complex and interwoven. But it is, more than anything, the story of Jean Valjean’s redemption.
- Don Quixote is unique in that you CAN read it in a deep or philosophical way, if you want to. You can also just read it as a “funny book” and enjoy the story and laugh with or at Don Quixote, as the case may be.
I think that people, FIRST, either like philosophical fiction (as a general concept) or they don’t. If they read first and foremost to be entertained, they are not the target audience of any of the more philosophical works.
Secondly, I think a person has to share your worldview to truly enjoy your philosophical fiction. If not, it just feels boring, nonsensical, preachy, and wrong.
Can something you agree with at core be presented in a preachy way? Yes, of course. But I think we are all much more sensitive to the “preachy” factor when the message is one we reject.
I will never forget trying to read a book by D.H. Lawrence in college for a class. I think we were assigned “Women in Love.” It was AWFUL. I hated it so much. I could not even get close to finishing the thing, it grated on my nerves so much.
It is extremely philosophical. It is also staunchly opposed to almost everything I happen to believe, to the point that I just couldn’t stomach it.
Anyways, what do you think of philosophical fiction? Do you like it? Do you write it? Do you find that there is a spectrum of character-focused and philosophy-focused fiction? That it’s not a pure case of either or but one of “percentages” (for the sake of simplicity)?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”