What is Metaphysical Fiction?
Posted on 03/21/2011 at 7:39pm

With rapid-fire change taking place in the publishing industry due to the introduction of social media, tablets and portable e-readers, the look and feel of “the book” is in all new territory. Writers are experimenting with form, style, and voice (perhaps like never before in literary history). Because of this, and also in response to market trends, new genres have emerged in the literary marketplace.

It’s still true (IMHO) that no work of fiction is worth reading unless it has compelling characters, a strong plot and a storyline that pulls you through to the very end. No matter what genre you most enjoy reading or how a book is categorized, all of these aforementioned elements must be weaved into a tapestry of action, suspense, romance, fantasy–you get the idea–to make any book worthwhile for you to spend time reading it.

As I’ve been observing these trends, and moving along on my writer’s journey and pondering where the kind of stories I write fit in grand scheme of things, I have had to look at works by other authors. Sure, it’s easy to drop a book into one of the big genres (Speculative, Thriller/Suspense, Mystery, Literary, Action, etc). But within these big groupings the water gets pretty murky. Case in point is Speculative Fiction (where a lot of my current storytelling falls). At one time Spec Fic sub-genres were simple enough: Paranormal, Horror, Utopian/Dystopian,  Sci-Fi etc., now we have “vampire romance,” “paranormal fantasy” “urban fantasy” “mature young adult fantasy” “new age and visionary” “steampunk” and “slipstream.” Some of these have been around a while and others will die out as fast as they appeared. Among the trending changes in Fantasy is the emergence of Metaphysical Fiction.

Metaphysical Fiction: What it is & What it is not.

This is my humble attempt at discerning between metaphysical fiction and related fantasy sub-genres. It’s not the end all of definitions. It’s a beginning and I’m sure this will evolve over time (or go extinct, depending on what the market demands!).

  • Metaphysical not the same as fantasy nor is it science fiction. In fantasy, “otherworlds” and made-up creatures exist and the existence of such things isn’t in the realm of possibility in the world as we know it. Science fiction, broadly describes stories where the worlds and creatures that inhabit it operate by a set of rules that is possible, but not probable (at least not according to current scientific knowledge). These stories speculate on the future of science and technology in the known world or other worlds. Star Wars is science fiction. Clash of the Titans is fantasy. Harry Potter is fantasy. Slaughterhouse Five is science fictionArmageddon is science fiction. The Hereafter (film starring Matt Damon) and is metaphysical.
  • Metaphysical works may address topics like energy healing, past lives, the power of the mind over matter. Themes of spirituality and even fantastical creatures may inhabit the story, but the story takes place within a real worlds and real time (or between worlds, or between real time and some other notion of time). Examples: Practical Magic or The Story Sisters (by Alice Hoffman),  Angelology: A Novel (by Danielle Trussoni) or The Alchemist by Coelho and many of the books authored by Mitch Albom. MJ Rose has authored a terrific series of metaphysical novels in which characters are in jeopardy because they are in possession of or pursuit of ‘memory tools’ –objects that can invoke past life memories. Rose’s series of books are metaphysical suspense. The driving force of the plot is who has the tools, who wants the tools and what happens if they get into the wrong hands? The metaphysical aspects (moving through time and historical events/locations) is intricately (and masterfully) woven into the suspenseful storyline.
    • In Metaphysical Fiction, the metaphysical elements are both set against and intricately woven into ordinary human experience, creating chaos (conflict) for the characters in the story.
    • The metaphysical element may be the focus of the plot or a device within a more complex plot. For example, suspense combined with characters who possess talents that defy physical laws, which other characters want to possess and control.
  • Visionary Fiction and Spiritual Fiction. Visionary Fiction has strong spirituality component. The Native American tradition of “teaching stories” comes to mind when I think of visionary works. These books put forth a view of the world based in esoteric teachings or ancient traditions with the intention of moving the reader along their own spiritual journey (“enlightenment”), or at least catalyzing meaningful self-reflection. A book like the The Celestine Prophecy by James Redman comes to mind. It is set in real time, plays with concepts of time, energy, the nature of God/creator, and the power of the mind but it has an instructive purpose rather than a purely entertaining purpose. Spiritual Fiction, a close relative of Visionary Fiction, is a bit easier to spot because it deals with themes such as good and evil, God and morals in much more direct way. The series, Left Behind and the novels, Rooms by James Rubin and The Shack are examples. Somewhere in the middle is a book (and film) like What Dreams May Come. This film blends spiritual traditions to convey a unique vision of the afterlife as the main character, Chris (Robin Williams) passes over and leaves behind his soul mate (whom he later must save from her own personal vision of hell). It’s fantastical, it’s metaphysical and it’s spiritual.

Related posts on this topic:

2013:  Setting the Stage for Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction (posted at Visionary Fiction Alliance)

Visionary Fiction Alliance Response to their definition of visionary and metaphysical fiction
Magical Realism What is it? Who writes it?
Spiritual Horror Can you be scared into enlightenment?