Blurring The Lines: What Does Literary Fiction Bring to Fantasy

This possible link occurred to me yesterday in a fit of enthusiasm (I was just leaving the gym, so probably riding high on a wave of endorphins) but I’m not sure it actually works. Does literary fiction have any relation to fantasy?

After all, literary fiction is about an inner arc, right? The development and growth of a character as seen through the way he lavishes attention on his prize winning green beans but not his wife who is slipping into dementia but he hasn’t noticed, and nor have his three spoilt children who come home only to bring friends to impress with the family pad or to cadge money/favours/a roof after being kicked out of their boy/girlfriend’s house/school/their own accommodation for failing to behave like a human being.

Does that have any place in fantasy? Surely fantasy is about the world and the powers and the fireballs!! Yes, you probably realised already that I’m a big fan of the fireballs. I’m quite shameless about it. I couldn’t possibly write literary fiction. No fireballs? It’s not a proper story!

But then, when you think about it, a story can be good with a good plot and fun powers (fireballs). But good characters will make the story great. I’m a story slut. I’m totally easy, absolutely blind-able with bling. I loved Avatar, but mainly because I thought those green people were actually really cute. Yes, I’m weird. Shut up. But there weren’t any particularly memorable characters in it. Unless you count Sigourney Weaver’s, which I do.

Samwise Gamgee, on the other hand…

Samwise had no abilities, no great quest to fulfil. His main purpose was apparently to try and keep Frodo alive and to have his efforts thrown back in his face with every other heartbeat. And yet he persevered. He nearly drowned himself in order to stick with his friend, and instead of throwing him bodily into the volcano, he stalled him for long enough, just by being shocked at Frodo’s sudden abandonment of the quest, for Gollum to do his thing and die instead.

Frodo might have got his name in lights, but Samwise was the true hero.

How very… literary. All Samwise brings to the story is his character (I know someone’s going to disagree with me – feel free). But what a character. And I believe he’s the one who brings back the trees? In the book? Which I haven’t read in a decade and a half? Not Frodo. Samwise.

I love Samwise. He’s a bit short, but otherwise perfect. Ah well, nobody’s perfect.

This focus on character is quite a literary thing, I think, but good character development is often listed in a review as a reason the reader/reviewer gave a story 4 or 5 stars. Regardless of genre, readers like characters they can really relate to, which is also possibly why supporting characters are often better loved than the main characters.

Supporting characters have to be, well, supportive. They can’t show any of the serious flaws manifested in their more important (to the storyline) counterparts. The readers know they can rely on them. And they would be able to rely on them even if you put them in a completely different type of story. If you took Samwise out of Lord of the Rings and put him down in Love Actually, he’d be the long-suffering brother of the idiot who is playing two girls at once. And he would love the idiot regardless.

I recently read an article about how a number of literary authors are switching over to genre and proving quite successful. That’s probably, in all honesty, what planted the seed for this article. But maybe their training in the literary field, where character arc is all important (from what I can gather, although this may be overly harsh and I don’t know myself because I steer clear of the genre, but I’m told many literary books have barely any plot at all).

Literary fiction also places huge emphasis on setting, as well as character. The moors are as much a character in Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff (I preferred the moors. At least they couldn’t talk). This is something literary fiction definitely has in common with fantasy, although I think a lot of settings in fantasy don’t work as hard as they could. Massive, evil-looking, spiky granite mountains often just sit there in their massive, evil-looking, spiky granite-ness. No one tries to conquer them. The characters are often quite intelligent about it.

“Oh those mountains are a bugger, you don’t want to try and cross those. You’ll die for sure.” Yeah, no shit. But in a literary novel, the characters will try anyway. And some of them will die. Usually the ones you really like.

I think fantasy writers could definitely learn something from literary writers in that area. Use the mountains! Use the swamp! Make that setting come alive and do its level best to kill your characters. Conflict, people! Conflict!

Which begs the question, which creates more conflict? A good setting, or good characters? A question applicable to both literary and fantasy novels. Ooh, the possibilities…


Real life is just too real, which is why Anne-Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available on 27th October 2011.

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