The Melting of Modes

Renowned Canadian academic Northrop Frye, outlines the shape of fiction in his book Anatomy of Criticism:

In the second paragraph of the Poetics Aristotle speaks of the differences in works of fiction which are caused by the different elevations of the characters in them. In some fictions, he says, the characters are better than we are, in others worse, in still others on the same level. This passage has not received much attention from modern critics, as the importance Aristotle assigns to goodness and badness seems to indicate a somewhat narrowly moralistic view of literature. Aristotle's words for good and bad, however, are spouddos and phaulos, which have a figurative sense of weighty and light.

What Aristotle is saying here, therefore, is not as simplistic as it might seem. If the thing called a ‘character’ in fiction was just meant to be a figure which exists to teach us a lesson in how to be good or bad, it might be an easy thing to dismiss. But what if Aristotle (who generally had many wise things to say about a range of subjects) meant something else entirely?

Frye goes on to explain:

In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, therefore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero's power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same.

Importantly, though, there is a little bit more to this, which Frye didn’t examine. What he is calling ‘the something he does or fails to do’ isn’t the base unit of what makes fiction work, though it certainly appears that way on the surface. We examine what these things called characters do or appear to do, and this forms a way of categorising the work we are reading. It’s a perfectly legitimate and fascinating way of looking at fiction, and Frye does a brilliant job of outlining such a categorisation, but it’s not the most fundamental way of assessing what is going on in a story. Here are the compartments Frye came up with, as a starting point

1. If superior in kind both to other men and to the environment o