How can literary fiction surprise and delight us with only 3 basic plot types?
A good plot revolves around a conflict that draws you in and leaves you breathing heavily after everything is resolved. There are many themes to explore, but all themes will be navigated through 3 basic conflicts.
1. Man vs. Man
More accurately, Character vs. Character. This isn’t to be politically correct, but because the conflicting characters are not always human. For example, some would say that man vs. God should be a plot type. If “God” is a set of life circumstances heaped up against the main character, than that would fall under man vs. environment. If “God” is a sentient personality, than it is another character in the story, and therefore fits well under the character vs. character plot type.
But literary fiction doesn’t always have to pit one character against another to be classified as character vs. character. Take Gunter Grass’ “The Flounder” for instance. One of its major themes is the role of women in history. The Flounder is a magical creature that initially instructs a cave man how to dominate the females in his tribe. But the fish gets tired of male dominated society, allows himself to be caught by two women and offers to help them overtake the males. The women don’t take kindly to the Flounder’s confession and bring him before a Tribunal of women in Berlin.
The struggle between men and women is emphasized throughout the story. It’s a conflict between groups of people, but it could still be classified as character vs. character.
2. Man vs. Self
When the main character’s struggle is their own desires, emotions, addictions, and behaviours, it’s a man vs. self plot. Hamlet’s internal conflict over his father’s murder, his mother’s incest, and what he should do about it all is a classic example of man vs. self. Many times these stories will take on a theme of moral behaviour, right vs. wrong, and which path the character will choose.
However, man vs. self can also examine identity. In Margaret Atwood’s “Lady Oracle,” the main character, Joan Foster, struggles with her identity. She was obese growing up and was harrassed, even abused for it. Then she lost weight and sought to reconstruct her identity. Being a romance writer, Joan attempts to build her life as she would the plot of one of her romances. However, Joan’s “new self” is not turning out how she hoped and she struggles with the fact that she cannot escape her old identity.
3. Man vs. Environment
Survival stories are easily identified as man vs. environment. Or even stories of outdoor adventures where the characters must brave the elements. But environment is not just nature, it can be culture too.
“We the Living” by Ayn Rand is about a young Soviet woman named Kira. She wants to be an egineer, but is kicked out of university. Kira is independant and her creativity doesn’t fit within the confines of State approved ambition. Kira is fighting her environment, the oppressive system of the Soviet state.
Why Literary Fiction Works With Only 3 Plot Types
- There are multiple conflicts within one story. In all of the examples above, there will be a mix of conflicts between self, other characters and their environment.
- There may be three basic plot types, but there are many literary themes. They range from betrayal to coming of age, from quests for treasure to redemption. Themes are drawn from the vast human experience. We will likely be drawn to themes that reflect our personal experiences.
- As new experiences are added to our personal history, our interests are opened up to new stories. For instance, after being robbed, you may suddenly be drawn to stories about similar injustices.
As long as there is new life on this earth, literary fiction will never tire of any theme or plot type. None of us have experienced everything that life has to offer.