Since I started my writing career almost a decade ago, I have dabbled in reading most genres–historical fiction, thrillers, horror, mystery, and so forth. Reading other authors’ works is vital to discovering one’s own style of writing, a process that constantly evolves. Literary fiction, which stands apart from genre fiction in that it tends to be more didactic and serious, has become my preference in terms of a favorite type of novel.
Literary fiction usually focuses on characters’ internal struggles, which resemble the conflicts of real life. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, protagonist Holden Caulfield dislikes fake individuals, who act superficially and represent one of the ills of society. He constantly brings up this theme of superficiality, which inevitably makes the reader dwell on it. Are the individuals that I interact with superficial? Am I superficial? In addition to being entertaining, this novel presents profound ideas that make the reader reflect on a darker side to society that Salinger wanted to address.
Very rarely in a murder mystery do these internal struggles surface. Rather, the reader waits for a “puzzle” to be solved, and the characters fit into a neat mold. This mold isn’t broken by internal struggle or growth, so the characters are often referred to as stock. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple discover the perpetrator and neatly tie up the plot at the end. The detectives don’t undergo a significant transformation. Horror novels tend to follow this pattern, as well. In Stephen King’s Carrie, the reader has no doubt that the protagonist, Carrie, has taken her revenge on the town that ridiculed her. But the novel entertains only. Carrie doesn’t make the reader reflect on society or himself.
What stands out most in literary fiction is a character arc, a change in a character’s way of thinking or behavior that propels him towards his goal. In To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, Atticus’ daughter, Scout, experiences a loss of innocence, which bonds her to her father in an even stronger way than before. She appreciates what Atticus, a trial lawyer, has done to try to battle against racial prejudices in the twentieth-century South after he represents a black man. Scout’s character arc teaches and inspires the reader, something that genre fiction generally doesn’t do.
While most genres of fiction certainly do entertain, the character arc in literary fiction holds the advantage in terms of being a superior category when teaching life lessons or critiquing society.