Good fiction can be that book that made you cry and left you in a post-book depression for a week. It could also be defined by an appreciation for the plot or characters. Perhaps it touched feelings long buried in childhood. Maybe it taught you something new. The endless room for creativity in fiction makes it difficult to bind it to a definitive set of rules. There will never be a sure-fire way to measure “good” fiction but through reading various articles and blogs, as well as drawing from what I’ve learned in creative writing courses, I’ve compiled a set of general components to what constitutes “good fiction.”
Nice to meet you: writing believable characters
Central to any story are the characters living through it. Regardless of the genre, plot, or setting, the point of connection comes from our ability, as readers, to understand the characters and their motivations on a human to human level. While we might not be able to completely relate to the setting or world, especially with genres like science fiction or fantasy, good fiction follows complex characters that feel real. This provides a gateway that bridges any gaps that exist between the reader and the story. While I’m sure most people can’t relate to being a cyborg from the year 3670 who can shoot lasers out of their eyes, we can empathize with what it might be like to feel insecure or disappointed.
A complex character is believable. Getting to know a character is similar to getting to know someone in real life. The way they present themselves, the things they say or do, their interactions with others – collectively, all this reveals information about who they are. So make your characters live and breathe and make embarrassing mistakes and feel their emotions vividly. Also, note that believable doesn’t necessarily mean rational. Real people don’t act in rational ways, so it’s okay to let your characters do things that don’t make sense. People are weird – as long as there is a compelling reason for their actions, almost anything goes. Even if you don’t personally agree with what a character does, it should be understandable in the context of who they are and what they want in the story.
Authentic characters make readers more inclined to invest in them. Just as you care more about someone as you get to know them, readers should care about what happens to the characters. Some of this investment comes from the protagonist’s own investment in the story. The protagonist should play an active role in progressing the story through their actions. Rather than being a passive observer that waits for things to happen to them, the protagonist should be actively trying to get what they want, which will be the driving force for the plot as they take action to achieve it. Because the character has such an intense desire and motivation, we can immerse ourselves in the character’s perspective and become invested in following them through their journey.
Something worth fighting for: conflict
At the heart of every story is a conflict. Unfortunately for the characters, there’s no good story unless things are going wrong. The protagonist needs to desire something and take action to try to get it – but also, something needs to be standing in the way of them getting it. Not every conflict needs to be extremely obvious or dramatic, but there should be something the character wants, something that’s preventing them from getting it, and through their struggle to overcome this obstacle, the story emerges.
It’s important to note the difference between conflict and trouble. It’s important for a story to have conflict and not just trouble. While trouble is just a problem that the character is having, conflict is a force that is acting in direct opposition to the character’s goal. For example, if the protagonist’s mother is sick, that’s trouble. Now if the protagonist’s mother is sick and the protagonist wants to get the money for her treatment but doesn’t have the means to, that becomes a conflict that can drive a story. Trouble doesn’t make a story because the character has no driving motivation to push against some obstacle. On the other hand, conflict provides something for the protagonist to fight against in order to achieve some desire.
Good fiction makes use of the interaction between internal and external conflict. External conflict is the more obvious, surface level conflict that generally drives the actual plot and action in the story. On the other hand, internal conflict is a battle that occurs within the character and usually emerges from or is closely tied to the external conflict. Since it’s internal, the conflict will usually be more subtle, however, it is crucial for adding depth to the character and their development throughout the story.
The devil’s in the details
With character and conflict as the core components of a good fiction piece, the little details are what make the characters and story come to life. Details should be meaningful, which is to say they should serve some purpose in advancing the plot or providing context about the character or setting. The general categories of detail include dialogue, thought, backstory, and description.
Dialogue and description provide external information about the scene, such as what the characters are saying and what is happening. Thought and backstory reveal the internal state of characters.
It’s good to have a balance between the internal and external – for example, breaking up the dialogue between two characters with their thoughts, which might contradict what they’re outwardly saying, or backstory about something that occurred in the past that’s causing the tension between the two of them.
A set recipe for good fiction does not and will probably never exist, but this is some general advice that contributes to a well formed story. With these components as a solid foundation, a story can take root and strive towards becoming a piece of good fiction.
Much of this was inspired by lecture content from ENG 141: Modes of Writing, taught by Professor Melanie Abrams, and combined with general points of consensus across different articles and blogs I’ve read about good fiction.