FOR AUTHORS: Philosophical vs Character-Driven Fiction

This photo felt rather philosophical to me.

This photo felt rather philosophical to me.

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.

Why?

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.”

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28 responses to “FOR AUTHORS: Philosophical vs Character-Driven Fiction

  1. I’m not sure there’s a clear distinction. “Literary” novels often wrap philosophical arguments around plotlines and it depends on the author (and the length/complexity of the book) how strongly a case is argued. It doesn’t have to be a Great Gatsby or a War and Peace to have a message. Terry Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ novels spring to mind as polemic disguised as genre fantasy, and whilst I think his preachiness went well overboard in later novels, you couldn’t accuse these books of being plot-light.

    If you’re writing a character-driven, plot-heavy novel, philosophical messages will come through in the thoughts, dialogue and actions of your characters – if you want them to.

    • I love your point here. It really demonstrates what I was trying to say about a spectrum. An author can be reflective about life and what life means and comment on philosophical matters in a way that isn’t heavy handed and can be plot heavy. I definitely agree.

  2. I agree with most of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (my main disagreement is that I don’t think atheism is self-evident) but I have never been able to get more than a few pages into any of her fiction works.

    On the other hand, I am completely at odds with Robert Anson Wilson’s philosophy, but I love Illuminatus and The Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy.

    I also love everything Chesterton wrote, both essays and fiction (I am still determined to one day qualify myself for The Club Of Queer Trades.)

    So I think that, for me, the skill of the storyteller matters more than my agreement with the philosophy espoused.

    • I think that’s kind of cool! And I am a bit like that in some degree, seeing how much I love Oscar Wilde’s work 🙂 Also, I never read contemporary Christian fliction for some reason. I have never felt drawn to it. Maybe it’s just too close to what I already know and feel and I read to experience NEW things. Not sure….

  3. Don’t think I’ve ever read any philosophical fiction unless I had to in my school days. I tend to stick to character-driven stories. I’m a little confused on the difference though. Some characters have philosophies or tenants that they hold to, which carries a subplot of will they be able to hold onto such things for the duration of the book/series. That’s probably the closest I come to philosophy stories.

    • I think the difference is truly how you choose to define it. All aspects of story tend to bleed together and to help define one another at the same time. They all work together to create the whole: the story. Which is honestly what we truly care about most 🙂

  4. My book was both philosophical and character driven…but not meant to be entertaining. My wip is purely character driven and much, much different to write,not easier…just different.

    • It is definitely a different kind of reading and I imagine a very different kind of writing. How fun! Sounds almost like a brand new experience and a brand new way to fall in love with writing 🙂

      • Honestly. It’s not working out so well for me. I think once you develop a style, it is hard to switch over to something new. It is a crime novel sort of coming along like a cross between Charlotte Bronte and Tim Dorsey. HA!

  5. I think the philosophical question here is simply called literary, by another name. For me, if there isn’t some aspect of philosophical debate going on within at least a few of the characters, then the plot is incomplete.

  6. I love to read things that make me think. For example, I just purchased a book called” The Alchemist” by Paul Cuelo. I may be spelling his name wrong. I have heard so many good things about this book. I’m going to start reading it this weekend.

  7. Victoria, I felt that way years ago when I read To Kill A Mockingbird. Yes, the novel had strong characters…but the book characterized a prevalent way of thinking during a particular time in America’s history. These kinds of stories leave you feeling vaguely unsettled and do not always end happily–which I suspect is the point of writing a piece of philosophical fiction.

  8. I feel it’s a spectrum. Basing just off of my own work, Darkness Concealed is heavily character-focused, with the changes of each of the four characters over the course of the story taking up the most space. But I’ve threaded several different philosophical stances into it, sometimes in dialog, sometimes in situation. In some ways it’s character-focused, but in others it’s philosophically-focused.

  9. I think for a philosophically-focused novel, the author would have to be extremely careful to avoid author intrusion. You mentioned preachy earlier. If not handled correctly, I can see the story become less of a novel and more of an essay. I believe the reader may forgive much, but being hit over the head with the author’s thoughts takes away from the story. Many authors are quite successful, however. The first book that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. He was definitely espousing the devastation of war between England and France, yet at the same time, showing the love and friendship and the lengths he would go for that love and that friendship, yet the storytelling was paramount. It has been a long time since I’ve read this, I should revisit it soon.

  10. This has been a matter of debate among me and my friends these last few weeks. We’ve been comparing Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and how Christianity factored into their seminal works, Lord of the Rings and Narnia.

    Tolkien put the story first, Lewis put the philosophy first. What’s really impressive, in my opinion, is that there is still a rich philosophical message in Lord of the Rings, whereas the plot in Narnia reads a bit thin at times.

    In my opinion, by focusing on telling a good story with believable characters and a compelling plot, you aren’t sacrificing any philosophy you might bring to your book. You can accomplishing both at the same time.

    • I am currently reading the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. And I am loving them for the philosophy. As a Christian, I am loving how they make me see how God works in the world through the parallel of how Aslan works in Narnia. But you are definitely right in what you say about story there!!!

  11. Reblogged this on #StoryCraft Chat and commented:
    Another thoughtful and thought-provoking writing post from Victoria Grefer. If you’re not following her blog, I highly recommend it. I’d love to have a chat about a character-driven and philosophy-driven stories, some day – not sure 140 characters is really enough, though. What do you think?

  12. One of my favorite books, Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden,’ is very philosophical in tone, but also a great read. I enjoy books that espouse a philosophy, even if its one I don’t necessarily agree with. My only caveat is that the story be engaging.

    • I agree with you, an engaging story is supremely important. And reading things with which I disagree can be helpful; it helps me to examine and to defend why I do believe the way I do.

  13. Pingback: Viewing Creative Writing Choices as a Spectrum, Rather Than “Either-Or” | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  14. Pingback: Is All Fiction Philosophical? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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