Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fiction’s Ultimate Concern

“ The only requirement for good fiction is that it be interesting,” Henry James said. A fiction writer is free from the shackles that bind the non-fiction writer. For creating a world of make believe a writer of fiction is under no legal obligation to anyone except his muse. As a work of fiction belongs solely to the writer’s imagination, he or she is not bound by any formal rule. This freedom is akin to the wind under the wings. The only limitation comes from the imagination.

For any work of fiction to enter the realm of classic: it has to be good, it has to be interesting and of course relevant to all times; before and after its publishing period.

What separates a good fiction from a great one is not just the literary and technical skills of the writer, but also the universality (the universal questions the book deals with in its own inimitable, unique and interesting way).

Paul Tillich calls it the Ultimate Concern. The contemporary fiction which falls under the best category has the quality of the ultimate concern in abundance. Ultimate Concern is something that we take with unconditional and utmost seriousness in our lives without any reservations. It’s something that we are ready to suffer for, or, even die for. Ultimate concern is something which makes every other concern in that person’s life secondary. The ultimate concern consumes the person. It contains the answer to the question of the meaning of that person’s life.

A person is Grasped by this ultimate concern. Take the example of Harry Potter in the seven books by Rowling. His ultimate concern was to  destroy  Voldemort's Horcruxes and make him susceptible to  death and  also stop him from unleashing his terror on the wizards. Harry was aware that either he would be successful in thwarting Voldemort, or, he would die in the process. The outcome of this ultimate concern was absolutely clear to Harry. But he was grasped by it, caught in the ultimate concern’s death like grip. This thought haunted him day and night, he was a boy possessed with just one mission in life. Stop Voldemort.

I believe that every work of fiction grapples with an ultimate concern which consumes the protagonist like fire. The resolution of this ultimate concern forms the crux of the story. For me the ultimate concern transfers into the conflict in the book. Maybe the conflict in my book may not be universal, maybe this conflict is just crucial for my protagonist: but it becomes his or her ultimate concern, something he or she is dead serious about. Something for which they are willing to stake their lives.

How do you decide the ultimate concern of your protagonists? Are they grasped by it like Harry? Please share. We would love to learn from everyone’s experience.



  1. I love how you describe that, every protagonist consumed by their concern like a fire. I'm going to have to re-evaluate my MC's concerns.

  2. I really like how you've laid this out, Rachna. I guess I hadn't really thought of the Ultimate Concern before, but it makes such good sense. I'm not sure that my books have something timeless the way classics do, but hopefully will have some concerns/struggles that readers can relate to!

  3. Writing this post Anne, has made me re-evaluate my MC's concerns too. Have to rewrite quite a bit keeping this post in mind.

  4. Jody, like you I hope readers can relate to some aspect of my book. That would be a blessing. I am going to be working on the Ultimate Concern of my Main Character over the next few days.

  5. And it's also key to make your reader concerned for the MC's issues. I have to ask myself when I write: "Why should anyone care about this? What makes the reader sympathize or feel for the MC?" Bc when it's not there, people stop reading.
    Great, though-provoking post!