The Laws of Fiction

Fiction is indeed a vast universe, but it follows laws not dissimilar to those laws we take for granted in the physical universe around us. Knowing something about these laws, we can predict the ebbs and flows in culture throughout history, including our contemporary culture.

Canadian academic Northrop Frye was one of the first to try to discover and record those laws in the modern era. Taking Aristotle’s aspects of poetry – mythos (plot), ethos (characterization/setting), and dianoia (theme/idea) – Frye devised a spectrum ranging from plot driven, as in most fiction, to idea driven, as in essays and lyrical poetry. One of his major essays begins by exploring the different aspects of fiction (subdivided into tragic and comic).

Tragic, comic, and thematic literature are divided into five ‘modes’: mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic, based on how the protagonist is portrayed in respect to the rest of humanity and his or her environment.

Tragedy, Frye says, is concerned with the hero’s separation from society: mythic tragedy deals with the death of gods, romantic tragedy mourns the death of heroes such as King Arthur, high mimetic tragedy presents the death of a noble human such as Othello, low mimetic tragedy shows the death or sacrifice of an ordinary human being such as Thomas Hardy’s Tess and the ironic mode often shows the death or suffering of a protagonist who is weak relative to his or her environment as in Franz Kafka’s work.

Comedy, on the other hand, is concerned with the integration of society: mythic comedy tells of acceptance into the society of gods, as with Hercules, whereas in romantic comic modes, the hero joins with an idealized simplified form of nature. In high mimetic comedy a strong central protagonist creates his own reality, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, whereas low mimetic comedy often ends in marriage. Ironic comedy, according to Frye, is more complex, embracing tales of murder and sacrifice but including satire.

Frye was right – but (and this might seem presumptuous, but bear with me) he didn’t go far enough: in looking for patterns in literature, he can be completely forgiven for missing something that would have made even more sense of the categories and genres that he proposed.

What was missing?

The missing thing.

That sounds like nonsense, but in fact fiction is driven by what is not there, as much as by what is there.

Aristotle’s aspects of poetry are founded upon a further level, out of sight: mythos (plot), ethos (characterization/setting), and dianoia (theme/idea) are all driven by things that are missing: both protagonists and plots, both settings and ideas, are pulled along by unknowns, mysteries, absences, wounds, gaps, losses and holes. The book How Stories Really Work explains this in greater depth.

Frye’s modes are observable and are part of the picture, but there are four basic genres, not two: instead of just Tragedy and Comedy, there are also Epic and Irony.

Tragedy, concerned with the hero’s separation from society, builds upon the Epic genre in which society and the hero are not separated: mythic Epic deals with the rebirth of gods (as in the Norse Ragnarok), romantic Epic with the immortal transcendence of heroes (as in the legends of King Arthur), high mimetic Epic presents the triumph of kings (as in many medieval tales and in much modern high fantasy), low mimetic Epic shows the role of ordinary human beings in bringing about order (as in most Victorian novels), and ironic Epic often shows the overcoming of impossible odds by a protagonist who is weak relative to his or her environment (The Lord of the Rings is an obvious example).

These themes and patterns can be clearly seen whenever we look closely at a piece of fiction, and it is to Frye’s credit that he was one of the first who could see that fiction formed a universe of its own and had laws like physics.

But how does this fit in with superversity?

Entire cultures can incrementally move into these modes. In ancient times, myth was a common mode of expression; in the Middle Ages, the Epic romance formed the template. As the Renaissance took hold, so did tragic and comic genres of Shakespeare and his contemporaries; then, with the rise of the novel came the triumph of the high and low mimetic and, as the Twentieth Century dawned, Irony triumphed.

Irony as a cultural pattern is based on undermining the stable and positive templates provided by the Epic: the protagonist, instead of being a young and usually male orphan who finds a set of companions and is guided to victory over evil, becomes an anti-hero, often female, beset by overwhelming odds and doomed to failure, disgrace and sometimes a fate worse than death. Think of the horror sub-genre in modern times, as an extreme example -but the influence of Irony is more subtle and pervasive. This isn’t just in novels: we see failure aggrandised throughout the culture. We see twisted versions of what was part of Western culture wherever we now turn, whether in books, theatre, films, fashion or art in a more general sense. No longer is the culmination of humanity’s efforts a triumph over the forces of darkness – now we are supposed to embrace the darkness and succumb to it. Order collapses into chaos, and the chaos is welcomed.

To try to turn this ship of culture around and to restore icons and images to their proper place is a big task. But it could be argued that the need for positivity, for hope, for genuine stability and love in today’s world is greater than ever.

Hence the need for superversity.

Grant P. Hudson B.A.(Hons.)

Grant P. Hudson is an editor, management consultant, founder of Clarendon House Publications, an online venue for independent writers, self-publishers and others around the world, and the author of several books including How Stories Really Work and the 12-week e-course How to Write Stories That Work – and Get Them Published!

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  • You almost get the sense that we’ve become too cynical for happy endings, that stories must mirror real life and leave us with a bitter taste in the mouth.

    • Bellomy

      This is, incidentally, one of the reasons I admire Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” so much: It’s set up for a tragic ending, but there isn’t one.