Every novelist must create a world out of his own imagination. He must form and fill it, invest it with an intrinsic causation, and infuse it with meaning and purpose. How does a novel do this, and how does it do it well—and furthermore, how would we know?
The philosopher Peter Kreeft has observed that a work of imaginative fiction has five basic elements: It has a setting, the world of the story; characters, who are the workers in the story; plot, which is the work of the story; a theme, which is the wisdom of the story; and a style, which is the words of the story.
The setting of a story is a fundamental element in a story’s believability. The author has to find a way to make the world he has imagined a real world, one in which the reader can lose himself. One of the clearest examples of this is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s descriptions of Middle Earth are so vivid that the reader finds himself immediately at home—or in danger—in it. The green, welcoming world of the Shire, the peace and contentment of the last homely house in Rivendell, the magical yet terrifying world of the elves’ Lothlorien, and (let us shiver as we think of it) the dark, terrifying land of Mordor are places that almost seem more real than our own world. They may not exist, but when we encounter them in Tolkien’s great work, we feel as if they should.
There are other writers who have demonstrated a remarkable ability to create a real world: Washington Irving creates such a strong sense of setting in “Rip Van Winkle” that the Catskill Mountains seem almost to constitute a character in his story. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of her childhood on the frontier make use of concrete things and actions in a way that makes us see, hear, smell, taste, and touch her world.
Other writers do not do this as well. As great a novelist as Dostoevsky is, his world is not vivid to us because of his lack of setting. This is perhaps due to his interest in the psychology of his characters. Still, he has been judged by many critics as inferior to his fellow Russian novelist Tolstoy in this regard, since Tolstoy is a master of vivid description.
The second thing a novel should do is to give us real characters. A novelist must create characters who, in order to be plausible, must have a combination of predictability and unpredictability: they will act according to their kind, and yet they will have within themselves the power to defy their own natures. The novelist must, like God, create a being who is under his own complete control and who yet controls himself—a character whose will is his own and whose will is yet in ultimate concord with the author’s own overriding will. They will be the author’s characters, and yet they will be their own. It is only when an author has achieved this that his characters are truly believable.
While Dostoevsky is weak on setting, he excels in the reality of his characters. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes of three sons: Dmitri, who is at the mercy of his own passions; Ivan, whose intellect seems to have smothered his passions; and Alyosha who, unlike his two brothers, is a whole person whose passions are controlled—but not extinguished—by his reason.
Dostoevsky was fascinated by the fact that people who displayed certain characteristics with an almost iron regularity could suddenly change so dramatically. And in novels like The Brothers Karamazov, he creates characters that have all the psychological complexity of real people. This is a hard balance to achieve: to have characters act according to character but not be so pre-programmed as to be the mere puppets of the author.
In many modern novels the characters are not whole characters: they are broken in some way. And in many cases, the characters themselves are representative of certain modern characteristics. This often takes the form of characters representing worldviews. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri and Ivan represent the two sides of the modern split personality: the existentialist or hedonist (Dmitri) and the rationalist or materialist (Ivan). This is also the case in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, in which one character represents an extreme sort of spiritualism (old Tarwater) and the other an extreme form of rationalism (Rayber). In both these cases there are people who avoid these extremes, and they are either whole people (Alyosha) or seeking wholeness (young Tarwater).
The plot of the novel involves a believable chain of causation. The structure of our own world goes beyond merely giving things a place: it is invested also with causes. Nature has its laws, created by the Lawgiver, according to which things do what they do. And men too, the highest created things, have their own purposes—those they have as individuals and those they have by virtue of being men. So, too, in the world of the novel: There will be laws according to which things work, and the plot will proceed in a way that seems natural and has a plausibility within the context of the world the author creates.
Some novels hurtle toward a conclusion with an air of necessity; others take some twists and turns. An author can easily violate the integrity of his own characters if the plot becomes too deterministic. Some authors are so good they can play the two things against each other. In Romeo and Juliet (by William Shakespeare), there is a time at the beginning of the story when a number of outcomes are possible. But when Romeo slays Tybalt, his fate is sealed. In an act of will (even in the heat of passion), he has made his will irrelevant; in an act of his own choosing, he seals his fate. Romeo’s action leads to other actions that can’t help but follow, and although we are saddened by his end (and that of Juliet, which his action also precipitates), we know, given what he has done, that it must be.
Just as in real life, the end of a good story will not necessarily be evident in the midst of it, but when you have finished it, you should be able to look back on it and be able to say that it has ended in the best or only way it could have ended. Every story has a right ending, and part of being the “right” ending is being a just ending. For some stories the right ending is a happy one. For some the only right ending is a sad one. In a very general sense, this is the difference between a comedy and a tragedy. They are both satisfying. But if a story that is really headed for a happy ending is given a sad one, or a sad one a happy ending, we feel cheated.
In the classic 1956 science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (movies are stories too), studio officials didn’t like the ending, in which the aliens take over the earth, and so they pressured the director to tack on a happy ending: the earth is saved. But the happy ending was not the natural ending, and an otherwise great film is compromised by a clearly contrived ending.
On the other hand, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is clearly heading for a happy ending. The protagonists have earned it. But the author, in a ham-handed attempt to make some sort of existentialist statement, kills off one of the two main characters. The reader is devastated and feels the injustice of the story. G. K. Chesterton criticized Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles for a similar reason: that the author sacrifices his main character for an extraneous reason—in Hardy’s case, a political one.
Behind the characters and events there is an inherent moral purpose. This has to do with the story’s theme. Just as we see that our own world means something and the events seem to have a purpose, so also should a work of creative imagination. The actions of the characters in a story will not be random or senseless; they will reveal, in an implicit or explicit way, some theme or moral.
Since the theme has a lot to do with the ethos of a story, one way it can be categorized is by how it deals with the good. There are twisted stories in which bad is portrayed as good, and good bad, and which employ disordered archetypes. Books such as A Clockwork Orange may explicitly teach a disordered morality, but many books assume it—the disorder exists underneath the story, so to speak, making it hard to detect. Many of Ernest Hemingway’s books assume an underlying belief that the world lacks order and purpose and the events of life are ultimately meaningless. The classic example here may be The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. A twisted story should not necessarily be avoided (Hemingway has many virtues worth discussing), but many should be.
There are broken stories: stories in which good is good, bad is bad, and bad wins—books such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (by Robert Louis Stevenson) and Dostoevsky’s The Double. Again, these are stories that may still have value. If the story has no redeeming message to justify why the bad wins, then the reader would be better off reading something else. But there are some broken stories that do. The Double, for example, portrays a man who is so alienated from himself that he actually becomes two people. It is Dostoevsky’s way of portraying the disintegrated modern personality, which results from rejection of Christianity.
There are healing stories: stories in which good is good, bad is bad, and good doesn’t win as you would expect, but there is redemption nevertheless. In many of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, such as “The Little Match Girl” and “The Little Mermaid,” the protagonist does not survive, and yet there is some clear meaning or purpose to the ending. The novels of Wendell Berry also have this quality: every character does not live happily ever after, but even the tragic events that they endure give their lives more meaning and purpose than they would have had if there been a happy ending.
Finally, there are whole stories where good is good, bad is bad, and good wins. Most hero tales can be classed in this category, as well as many other books.
In his book Christ and Apollo, William Lynch points out that there are two kinds of imaginative fiction. The first sends its message through writing that is concrete. The significance shines through the characters and events in the story. It is incarnational writing. The second kind attempts to communicate its message through more abstract prose. It is a more direct approach, one which tries to communicate ideas more like expository writing. Imaginative fiction should be incarnational: the meaning and purpose of the story should shine through the characters and events in the story, all of which point toward the author’s purpose. A good writer doesn’t need to spell things out for his readers.
In Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s farmer boy, Almanzo, stops by the horse barn one day and beholds the family’s young colts:
Their nostrils fluttered when they breathed, their ears moved as swiftly as birds. They tossed their heads with a flutter of manes, and daintily pawed with their slender legs and little hoofs, and their eyes were full of spirit.
Wilder could have just described abstractly how beautiful the horses were, but she doesn’t. She never says they are beautiful: she shows it. There is a concreteness about the story that almost transforms it into poetry: we see what Almanzo sees; we hear what Almanzo hears; we feel the way Almanzo feels. And when Almanzo eats, which he seems to do throughout the book, we taste what Almanzo tastes. And when he is done, we, too, are content.
Different writers will use these five elements differently, and some will emphasize one or more of them over others. For example, setting is emphasized in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” where the Catskill Mountains almost seem to be a character in the story. Character is emphasized in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and in Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych. Plot seems to be the predominant element of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
But one thing is common to all great novels: although we can analyze them in various ways, they ultimately defy our analysis. In a great novel, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is hard to say exactly why it is great. The greatness of a novel is, in the final analysis, a mystery, and perhaps the greatest benefit of analyzing it is to realize just how mysterious it is.
Martin Cothran is a writer and teacher who lives in Danville, Kentucky, with his wife and four children. he is the author of Memoria Press‘s Traditional Logic, Material Logic, and Classical Rhetoric programs. Mr. Cothran also developed and manages Memoria Press’s online academy. He holds a B.A. in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a M.A. in Christian apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School. He still serves, on a consulting basis, as senior policy analyst with The Family Foundation of Kentucky. He practices the art of rhetoric in frequent articles on public policy issues that have appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Louisville Courier-Journal, The Lexington Herald-Leader, and various other newspapers around the state. He has served on several state commissions dealing with state education policy and has been a frequent guest on Kentucky Educational Television’s "Kentucky Tonight" program.
Andrew Pudewa is the director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing and a homeschooling father of seven. Presenting throughout North America, he addresses issues relating to teaching, writing, thinking, spelling, and music with clarity and insight, practical experience and humor. Although he is a graduate of the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, Japan, and holds a Certificate of Child Brain Development from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his best endorsement is from a young Alaskan boy who called him "the funny man with the wonderful words." Andrew and his beautiful, heroic wife Robin currently teach their three youngest children at home in Locust Grove, Oklahoma.
Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Fall 2010. Used with permission. Visit them at Schoolhouse Store, where shipping is always free! (U.S. only)