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A Glossary of Essential Literary Terms for Fiction Writers

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.

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Many of us love to settle into an easy chair, open a book from one of our favorite authors and immerse ourselves into the wonderful world of fiction. We typically allow the author to take us on a journey of discovery, fantasy and dreams; excursions of mental flight we often remember for the rest of our lives. We especially love when the words of a good fiction seem to magically transform themselves into mental images just as if we were watching a movie on an old fashion silver screen.

In many cases, we do not want to know what concoction of word and imagery alchemy the author has constructed. Instead, we want to be led into that world of make-belief living within the pages of the story we are reading. Soon, we find ourselves not only captivated by the story, but somehow part of it. When this happens, the author’s magic has worked.

However, whether we know it or not, good authors use many literary devices and concepts — tricks of the trade, if you will — in order to create indelible images in our minds. Images, we often replay time and again.

This article does not pretend to instruct the readers how to write fiction. I will leave that to those English majors who are well versed in the art of writing. It merely attempts to describe those literary devices and concepts good authors use.

This article will attempt to describe certain writing strategies that represent the effective approaches necessary for the creation of good literature. However, understanding these literary devices, will also enhance the reader’s enjoyment when deeply engrossed in a favorite book or short story.

In all likelihood, some of the terms described in this article are well known to many readers. On the other hand, there are some readers that might know little or nothing about some of them. Hence, we’ll start with the simplest terms and devices, working our way from there.

Genres and Sub-genres

While most people know the meaning of the words “genre” and “sub-genre,” it is import to include them in any list of important literary concepts or devices.

A genre is a category of artistic composition, in art, music, movies or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. As a category or art, a genre can be written, spoken, in audio form or visual. Genres can be of an aesthetic, rhetorical, communicative or of a functional nature. They have been known to change over time as cultures invent new genres and discontinue the use of old ones.

The following graph details the four main literary genres and some of their various sub-genres.

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Protagonist and Antagonist

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Protagonist

Protagonist: The main character and the center of any story. The fate of the protagonist is most closely followed by the reader or audience. He or she makes the key decisions and experiences the consequences of any actions taken. The protagonist moves the story forward and is often the one who faces the most significant obstacles. If a story contains a subplot, or is a narrative made up of several stories, then each subplot or story may have its own protagonist.

Developing a relatable, dynamic and multi-dimensional protagonist creates an infinitely more engaging character for an audience; ultimately making any work of fiction more interesting.

There are important rules in creating a strong protagonist. Some of these are:

  • Allow the reader to know the character before the story is set in motion. It is important for the reader to understand what the protagonist wants out of life; his or her view of the world; and his or her behavior. In good fiction, this comes before whatever obstacle might get in the way. This connection between the reader and protagonist represents an important foundation as the story develops.
  • Protagonists must be realistic with good characteristics but also with flaws. However, do not give so many flaws to the main character rendering him or her unlikable. It is impossible to root for a character who is so tragically flawed that he or she becomes a crackpot. Protagonists who alienate the readers by being rude, narcissistic, immature, intolerant and intolerable do not make for good reads.
  • Protagonists who communicate their feelings to the readers are highly desirable. Character that express frustration, thrill, humiliation, anger, lust or love allow the readers to empathize and identify with them.
  • Authors should not shy away from having horrible events happen to the protagonist. The protagonist should not overcome obstacles too easily as the tension can quickly deflate. Characters that face obstacles that seem insurmountable create indelible bonds with the readers.

Antagonist

Antagonist: A character in a story who is presented as the chief enemy of the protagonist. The antagonist usually provides obstacles, complications and creates conflicts that test the protagonist. Sometimes, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the main character.

Antagonist are often as important to the story as the protagonist. Alfred Hitchcock once said:

“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”

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The following are suggestions for the creation of good antagonists:

  • The antagonist must be a dynamic figure. We see this in the case of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein’s Monster”, who becomes more human as more is revealed about him. The best antagonists grow and change as much as the protagonists. We often enjoy watching them grow as we subconsciously hope for their redemption or at the least observe their villainy evolve.
  • Create a villain who is relatable. It is important for the reader to understand the motives behind all the characters, specially the antagonist. It is often difficult to develop a relationship with a character that is “pure evil.” Hence, reading about an antagonist who is not only aware of the reason for his or her actions, but can also justify them, makes for an infinitely more delightful character to engage emotionally.
  • The protagonist and the antagonist must share a deep connection. A deep and mysterious connection between the protagonist and the antagonist allows the readers to invest in the dynamics between the two characters. This dynamic often allows us to learn to love how the villain challenges the hero. A good villain is part and partial of a hero, who might be nothing without the antagonist. The readers then have no choice but to fall for the villain.
  • Villains should not be born into evil. The best villains do not start their lives as evil. Just like Darth Vader, the best antagonists were created by the world they lived in. These types of villains are much more complete characters and demand the readers to feel pity for them. Creating an antagonist who is the dark reflection of the story’s hero is also a good strategy that creates an interesting dichotomy for the reader to visualize. Also, a villain that could have been a hero elicits powerful emotional connection with the reader.
  • The antagonist must be totally committed to his or her mission. In the final analysis a hero that lays it all on the line (dignity, emotions, even life itself) wins the admiration of the readers. The same applies to the antagonist. Creating villains whose loss will lead to their complete destruction, will elicit secret admiration from the reading audience.
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Conflict — the Driving Force of the Plot

Conflict is central to building an exciting novel or short story. It can reveal uncomfortable truths about being human. It allows the writer to express his or her views on a specific topic through the characters and actions present in the story. Good writers manage conflict in order to create a lasting impression in readers’ minds

Conflict can be a disagreement or clash of ideas, values, motivations or desires. It is what sometimes drives humans to accomplish greatness. In literature, conflict, propels the writer’s story forward by creating tension.

Literary conflicts can be divided into two general categories: internal conflict and external conflict.

Internal conflict is when a character struggles with his or her own opposing desires or beliefs. It happens within the character and drives his or her development.

External conflict sets a character against something or someone beyond their control. External forces stand in the way of a character’s motivations and create tension as the characters try to reach their goals.

Including both internal and external conflict is crucial for a good story, because life always includes both.

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Types of Internal Conflict

Also known as a “character vs. self” it is a type of conflict in which the opposition the character faces comes from within. This might entail a struggle of moral values or choosing between right or wrong. It could be a struggle of physical or mental endurance. However, it is always a struggle that takes place in the mind of a character, caused by their own emotions, fears, conflicting desires or mental illnesses. Internal conflict tends to be a battle of reconciling two opposing forces within the same individual.

Internal Conflicts Often Seen in Literature

Authors that manage to describe strong internal conflicts in one or more of the characters they create, can almost always be assured of offering readers interesting narratives. The following are internal conflicts we often see in literature:

  • Conflicts about religion: Questioning one’s religion or culture. Questioning God after the death of a loved one. Loss of faith.
  • Moral conflict: Violating a moral code due to an immediate need. Steal food due to hunger or to feed a family. Succumbing to temptation and then experiencing regret.
  • Conflict of self-image: Someone’s actions are not consistent with how they view themselves. Perhaps, a policeman who steals.
  • Conflicts of love and sex: Hurting something or someone you love. Struggling with one’s own infidelity or sexuality.
  • Existential conflicts: A struggle about the meaning of life. For example, an environmentalist might work to save the planet while secretly believing it is doomed.
  • Gender conflicts: The battle of the sexes. Men and women act differently causing problems. Gender identity.
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Types of External Conflict

There are five primary types of external conflict:

  • Character vs. character: Two characters with conflicting viewpoints or needs. The author must develop each character carefully so that the reader understands the differences between the two. These conflicts can be represented in boxing matches; sports events; cop shows; protagonist vs. antagonist; war films; hero-archetype vs. villain-archetype.
  • Character vs. society: It pits the protagonist against broader forces of society. These forces can be cultural, political, governmental or institutional. The society is usually depicted by one or more specific character representing or symbolizing the larger system. A scientist fighting against government forces; rebel fighting an evil government; civil rights advocate fighting against a racist state government; innovative doctor confronts old-fashion hospital management.
  • Character vs. nature: In this type of conflict, characters are threatened or kept apart by a natural force. This can be represented by a powerful animal, a storm, an infectious disease or some other natural phenomenon. It could be a surfer who fights a great white shark; a fishing boat struggling against hurricane force winds; a camper facing a grisly bear.
  • Character vs. Supernatural: This is when the characters of the story face phenomenon such as ghosts, gods, or monsters. These fictional interactions raise the stakes of a conflict by creating an unequal playing field. However, these conflicts can also occur when a character faces resistance from fate, magical forces, otherworldly beings, religion or deities.
  • Character vs. Technology: This is when a character is in conflict with some kind of technology. This technology can take place in a modern period in which robots, androids, humanoids or supercomputers are present. However, it can also take place in a past era in which new technology is surfacing. This could include a conflict with steam-engine locomotives or new computer technology of the era.
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Archetypes

An archetype is a consistent and typical version of a particular object, person or set of behaviors. It is a prototype or “first” form. It is the main model that others follow. In essence, a standard or basic example. An archetype must fit into a time-tested mold that embodies a pure form.

In literature a character archetype possesses the core traits, values, and decision making patterns of a particular type of person. It is a constantly-recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology. Characters or ideas sharing similar traits throughout different stories.

Archetypes allow the reader or audience to connect certain parts of themselves with the characters, which can help them to become more invested in the story. This experience can help readers to see parts of themselves that maybe they hadn’t considered before.

In literature there are character archetypes and situation or plot archetypes.

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Character Archetypes

The following are the most common character archetypes we see in literature:

  • The Hero — This is the character who ultimately restores harmony and justice to the community at large. The hero, typically experiences an initiation which transforms him or her into a person who can overcome obstacles to achieve specific goals. Typically, the hero’s purpose in life is to improve the world.
  • The Villain — The bad guy who comes up with diabolical plots in order to cause harm or ruin. In some of the older fiction, a villain would mostly be a man attempting to harm the damsel-in-distress or helpless female. She, in turn would need a hero to save her.
  • The innocent — An optimist character who can only see the good in people. They enjoy the simple things in life; they are pure at heart; free of corruption, and seek harmony in the world.
  • The Initiates — These are young heroes who must endure strenuous training and rituals in order to take on some sort of quest. They are usually innocent during their early stages of their initiation, however become hardened warriors later in the story.
  • Mentors — These are teachers or counselors to the initiates. Sometimes working as role models or as father or mother figure. They teach the initiates either by example or by actual instructions. Their purpose is to train their pupils in order that they can undertake whatever journey or quest awaits them.
  • Companion Group — Loyal companions willing to face any number of perils in order to be together.
  • Friendly Beast –These are animals that assist the hero or protagonist often reflecting the idea that nature is on the side of the good character.
  • The Devil Figure — Represents evil incarnate. He or she may offer worldly goods, fame, or knowledge to the protagonist in exchange for possession of his or her soul or integrity. The Devil figure aims to oppose or destroy the hero or protagonist through one of the cardinal sins.
  • The Evil Figure with the Ultimately Good Heart — This redeemable devil figure is saved by the hero’s nobility, charm or good heart.
  • The Scapegoat — Exactly as the name implies, it is a character who takes the blame for pretty much all wrongdoing or bad occurrences that have happened in a plot. This can happen even if it’s completely out of anyone’s control. Marie Antoinette is a well known historical figure who is also a great example of a scapegoat.
  • The Outcast — This figure is banished from a community for some crime or sin — real or imagined. Often an outcast can become a wanderer. A good example of an outcast is Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
  • The Temptress — A character who may bring the hero’s downfall through sexuality and physical attraction.
  • The Platonic Ideal — A character that develops an intellectual or spiritual relationship with the protagonist, rather than a physical or sexual one.
  • The Unfaithful Wife — A woman who sees her husband as unattractive and dull and searches for excitement in other more virile men.
  • The Damsel in Distress — A vulnerable woman who must be rescued by the protagonist. Damsels in distress are often used as traps by other evil figures.
  • The Star-Crossed Lovers — Characters engaged in a love affair that is destined to end in tragedy due to the disapproval of society, friends, family, or the gods.
  • The Creature of Nightmare — A monster — real or imagined — who is summoned from the deepest and darkest depths of the human psyche in order to threaten the life of the protagonist. A good example of this is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
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Story or Plot Archetype

Story or plot archetypes are similar to character archetypes in that they represent patterns or molds that repeat themselves in other narratives. They are notable events recurrent across human experience that create a sense of familiarity allowing the readers or audience to easily comprehend an event. This is mainly due to our instincts and life experiences that allows us to connect each particular type of plot.

Themes such as coming of age, rags to riches, the quest, getting retribution, earning redemption, battle of the underdog are all archetypal plots representing classic story types readers have come to recognize and even seek out.

In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), Christopher Booker says:

“there are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever to break away from them.”.

The following are the seven basic plot archetypes he provides:

Overcoming the Monster — In this plot type an evil force threatens our hero or heroine, the world or mankind. The hero must fight and slay this monster in spite of difficulties he or she faces. The hero must emerge triumphant and ultimately receive a great reward which often isn’t easy. Sometimes heroes die or sacrifice their lives in order to save the world.

Some examples include: Beowulf, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone,

Rags to Riches — This a common and self-explanatory plot. The hero usually is dismissed by others, however manages to elevate him or herself, ultimately revealing outstanding qualities. Some of these plots vary in how the climax of the story is reached, however the outcome is always the same: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth or a mate. Sometimes loses it all and gains it all back. In the meantime growing as a person.

Some examples include: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations.

The Quest — In this plot archetype, the hero must set out on a long and hazardous journey, battling obstacles along the way, until triumphant. In some variations of this plot the protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to an important location. In all occasions the hero or heroes face temptations and other obstacles during their journey.

Some examples are: The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Lord Of The Rings, King Solomon’s Mines, Six of Crows.

Voyage and Return — Different from The Quest, in this plot type the hero travels out his or her normal world into an overwhelming and unknown setting. Eventually, the hero escapes back to the safety of home. These events in which the hero overcomes threats and danger present important learning experiences unique to that foreign location.

Some examples are: Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind.

Comedy — A story made up of comedic events, sometimes involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding or confusion. All resulting in hilarious chaos. These stories are usually represented by light and humorous characters with a happy or cheerful ending. However, a comedy can also be a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.

Some of these are: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Some Like It Hot, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Big Lebowski.

Tragedy — A story without the happy ending. In these stories the protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or who makes a great mistake which ultimately leads to destruction. The hero’s unfortunate end evokes pity at the fall of a fundamentally good character.

Some examples: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad, Bonnie and Clyde, Carmen

Rebirth — In this plot type, our hero falls under a dark spell, sleep, sickness or enchantment. Sometimes the protagonist dies and goes to heaven where he or she is sent back to Earth. Eventually, the hero breaks free from the spell or enchantment and is redeemed.

Sometimes, an event forces the main character to change their ways and eventually becoming a better individual.

Some examples: Pride and Prejudice, The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden. Heaven Can Wait.

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The Anti-Hero

An anti-hero is a protagonist that doesn’t have the usual “heroic” attributes such as physical strength, attractiveness, idealism, magnetic personality, bravery, courage, conviction, honesty, self-sacrifice and selflessness. Sometimes, there is a thin line between an antagonist and an anti-hero as it mostly relies on the intention of the person or character.

Antiheroes often act primarily out of self-interest, sometimes they perform actions that might be considered morally correct. However, these actions often defy conventional ethical codes.

Anti-heroes can sometimes be a villain we follow as the protagonist. They can be liars, vulgar, violent, angry, incredulous, and sarcastic.

Some well known anti-heroes are:

Fleabag, Randal Graves, Dexter Morgan, Jackie Peyton, Ray Donovan, Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Jennings, Tony Soprano, Riddick,

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Character Arc

A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. It allows a character to begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into a different one in response to changing developments in the story.

In some cases the change in the character can be quite substantial, causing a protagonist or antagonist to transition from one personality type to a diametrically opposed trait. For example, going from greed to benevolence or from hate to love. Although, protagonists and antagonists are the ones more likely to undergo a personality change, all characters in the story can change as well.

One reason for an author to cause a character to undergo a severe change can be as simple as creating a way for a protagonist to overcome obstacles in knowledge, resources or friends. Leading characters can change by learning new skills, arrive at higher sense of self-awareness or overall capability.

Examples of Character Arcs

The following are three basic types of character arcs:

Change or Transformation Arc

The most common arc in literature, is one of change and/or transformation. It is a change that parallels the protagonist’s journey. This plot structure is present in most stories that focus on a hero or strong protagonist.

It is a character arc in which we see a change from a regular person to a hero or savior and mostly it is applied to main characters or protagonists. It is mostly seen in a regular person, who at times can be considered an underdog but makes a metamorphic type of change into a hero.

Growth arc

Growth arc is different from a transformation arc in that the character grows without necessarily undergoing a complete change or transformation. By the end of the story, the characters remain the same persons, however they have been able to overcome various barriers within them. This growth process allow the characters to be a better and more rounded person. A growth arc can also show a character going through various stages of age and maturity. At times it can also show a character changing perspectives, learning something new or different approaches to life.

Fall Arc

This particular arc, represents a negative and possible catastrophic outcome. It involves the decline, fall or destruction of a character through bad choices or luck. The circumstances that befall the characters can doom them and potentially those near.

At the end of the story, the character has either died, become corrupted or become insane. Sometimes all three. A character going through this arc will also have ruined the lives of others consequently receiving no redemption or salvation.

Often, a protagonist going through a fall arc starts out as a good, happy and successful person, only to be completely unrecognizable at the end of the story.

Narrative, Plot, or Story Arc

Narrative arc, also called a “story arc,” a “dramatic arc,” “plot arc” or just an “arc,” is a literary term for the path a story follows. It provides a framework by showing a clear beginning, middle, and end of the story. It is very similar to a character arc, except it encompasses the entire story. In fact, the rise and fall in a story can be plotted on a graph to form a curve shape line, hence the term arc.