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The Modes of Fiction: An Introduction

Taking Aristotle as his starting point, Canadian academic Northrop Frye, in his ground-breaking book Anatomy of Criticism, classifies various kinds of fiction according to the power of action of the hero. This results in five broad types of fiction:

1. The hero is a divine being if he or she has powers that are different in kind over other human beings and the environment, and quite beyond the reader or audience. This produces a myth, usually a story about a god or goddess.

2. A typical hero of an Epic (or what Frye terms a ‘romance’) is one who has powers different in degree from those around him or her. Ordinary nature is slightly suspended: such things as magic are real, animals can talk, monsters abound and objects possess supernatural power. Modern fantasy fits largely into this category (with some notable exceptions which fit neatly into another category as we shall see). Myth becomes legend; heroes are superheroes rather than gods.

3. The hero is a leader, superior in degree to other people but not to his or her environment, and has authority, passions, and powers of communication greater than ours. However, he is not greater than the society, nor can he defeat nature. The reader or audience is placed in a position whereby they can find fault and see where he or she is going wrong. This is the framework in which Tragedy takes place, what Frye calls the high mimetic mode.

4. The hero is one of us, neither greater than the environment nor other people - this is what Frye calls the low mimetic, and forms the vast body of fiction about ‘ordinary people’. The central character is still often called a ‘hero’ but lacks traditional heroic qualities. Readers or audiences often feel closer to these characters as they seem like ‘one of us’.

5. When the reader or audience can look down upon the central character, and feels superior to him or her, we enter what Frye terms the ironic mode. Children’s literature can seem this way to adults; stories that feature some kind of lesser being as their protagonists fit into this category.

Frye points out that literature in Europe has progressed over the last millennia and a half from myths, to legends, to high mimetic Tragedies and Epics, to low mimetic novels about ordinary people, and has entered an Ironic phase, in which the protagonist is so deeply flawed as to be inferior in a fundamental way. It’s also true that the medium of stories has shifted along with this progression, from oral story-telling about myths and legends throughout the early and late Middle Ages, to largely theatrical presentations of tragedies and such stories during the Renaissance, then into the mass-produced novel during Victorian times, and now into various Ironic post-modern forms during the 20th and 21st centuries, including film and television.

Which came first, the medium or the content? Had widespread media been available to a literate public in the Middle Ages, would fiction have been centred around the low mimetic interests of the population as a whole? If somehow mass media disappeared from the modern era, would literature revert to being mythic?

Form and substance are intertwined.

This gets even more fascinating when we examine works of literature in detail and find that these modes are operating within them.

In Hamlet, for example, we see that the mythic background is only hinted at, but the high mimetic tragedy of Hamlet’s father, betrayed while he was sleeping by his brother, is both the background to the story and is enacted in the actors’ play in the middle of it. Part of the interest of Hamlet himself as a character is that he fluctuates between being a ‘high’ figure, with powers of communication beyond the ordinary person, and one of those ordinary people himself, subject to the same concerns as all of us, and then sinking lower to become apparently insane and thus suggest Irony at work. Meanwhile, lesser figures like the gravediggers take on the role of the inferior characters that we as an audience are supposed to feel better than.

This all becomes clearer, though, when a modern ‘high fantasy’ such as The Lord of the Rings is examined under the ‘mode microscope’. Here we see obviously superhuman figures, verging on mythic, such as Gandalf and some of the Elves; we see leaders with powers of insight and command beyond the norm, like Aragorn; we see ‘ordinary folk’ personified as the men caught up in battles involving ancient, powerful forces; and we see the Ironic hobbits, to whom we are supposed to feel superior, viewing the whole tapestry and acting as the ‘bridge’ for readers. The interweaving of these produces a work which operates on many levels, some of them probably unknown even to the author.

The Lord of the Rings largely works because of these layers. Remove them, or concentrate only on the ‘higher’ modes of myth and legend, and you get The Silmarillion, in all its beautiful unwieldiness. The many stories of that book are cohesive in their own way, and tie in with Tolkien’s vast backdrop of invented cosmology, but they have no bridging point with the modern reader. Undoubtedly, a literate reader from the Middle Ages would find them easier to warm to, with their lack of a single protagonist, piecemeal structures and high moral voice; the modern reader struggles. There is no Irony in The Silmarillion - it contains Epic modes, pure and simple and untempered by any attempt to bring them into the 20th or 21st centuries. This is largely why Tolkien himself struggled to publish the book. It was at first rejected as being too obtuse. It wasn’t until Tolkien scribbled one day on the leaf of a blank examination paper (so legend has it) ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ that he accidentally discovered the mechanism which the modern reader would accept as a way into the world he had created.

Part of the reason why fiction tends to have an archetypal set of characters, ranging from the god-like old man with the stick, to the shadowy, experienced warrior figure, to the self-emptying female, to the ‘ordinary’ protagonist, his or her comic companion, and more, is to do with modes.


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