Tag Archives: POV

Antimimetic Metafiction: Showing the Red Thread

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This week we’re looking at postmodern fiction. I can hear you groaning from here but bear with me. Now that I’ve had the term explained to me, I’m pretty on board with the idea (although still not keen when the idea is translated onto paper).

Postmodernism, according to my Middlesex University course tutor, is a rejection of generalising definitions and concepts which – because they are so broad, and made by those in a dominant position – marginalise a lot of other opinions on the same subject:

Patriarchal culture silenced and marginalised women during the nineteenth century; nineteen-seventies feminism, initially positioning itself as speaking for all women, was soon designated as speaking for white, middle-class, heterosexual liberals whose assumptions of what women needed ignored the specific and alternative demands of race, class and sexuality. Any claim to be, or speak for, a social or public position inherently excludes or marginalises. – MA course notes

I’m totally happy with that as a concept. Generalisation is marginalising and can be dangerous, so postmodernism sounds good to me.

Postmodern writing is an attempt to show this up, either through narrative constructions that are so obviously flawed that they can’t speak for everyone (unreliable narrators would fall into this category, as would two narrators with opposing views), or by being self-reflexive, i.e. deliberately drawing attention to the fact that the story is an artificial construct. This demonstrates the author’s awareness of the dangers of copy-cat representation and stereotyping as potentially oppressive, and their wish to distance themselves from it.

Metafiction is a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact. It poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. – Wikipedia

Antimimetic stories are those which challenge the idea that mimesis, or realism, is the main focus and refuses to follow the conventions of natural storytelling, instead ‘flaunting their artificiality’. Which is where most people go off them. We have a fairly ingrained notion of how a story is supposed to be structured, and expectations that all stories will follow those guidelines. Postmodern stories gleefully don’t and so it’s easy to stop recognising them as stories at all.

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It’s funny because it’s true.

The Author’s Voice

I’m not a fan of demonstrating my existence or cleverness to the reader within a story. It breaks their immersion, which I’m generally trying very hard to coax them into. I also tend to write in either 1POV or close 3POV, which means that I want the voice of the story to come across as the character-narrators rather than my own. The existence of an implied author is fine – someone has to write down the story, after all – but I don’t want to draw attention to it.

The concept of an implied author is especially important when discussing co-written, ghost-written, or anonymous works: political speechwriters all want to sound like the candidate who will speak their words; the multiple authors of a religious work, modern novel, or Hollywood movie want the material to sound as if it came from the same person. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

I also have no problem with what’s call mask narration, where the author puts their own personal views into the mouth of a character, so long as it’s done with some finesse. I think this is actually an important role of genre fiction – it allows us to debate sensitive issues such as gender or religion without quite so much real-life emotion attached because it’s a conversation between, say, an atheist elf-queen and a pangendered halfling missionary.

Transparent narration, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. That’s where the distinction between author and narrator-character breaks down, and nonfictional statements are made within the story. That’s breaking the fourth wall, essentially, with the author poking their head in the window and saying to the reader ‘I’m going to interrupt your consumption of this narrative for a second, and talk politics/morality/cooking at you’. It can be done well in exceptional cases, but generally speaking I’m not a fan.

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Conflating Storytellers

Traditionally, the storyteller is composed of three aspects: the actual real-life writer, the implied author (the person putting down the words of the Narrated, when not in 1POV), and the narrator-character. Postmodernism deliberately disrupts that triad.

Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers all have written works of fiction that include characters bearing the author’s name and some of his characteristics; they deliberately conflate these different versions of themselves. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Someone on my course, however, made the point that even if those distinctions are pulled down by the author, there will always exist two storytellers – the one the author puts across, and the one the reader perceives, which will necessarily be different because the reader’s experiences (and therefore interpretations) are not the same as the author’s.

Postmodern Unreliability

Because postmodern authors are deliberately trying to do things differently, their narrators are a different kind of unreliable. Firstly, you’ve got the ‘real’ author themselves, trying to blur their identity with the fictional/implied author (and frequently the narrator). This blurring is a fictional construct, creating a fourth type of narrator – a new character masquerading as ‘real’. That masquerade is, by definition, unreliable. Vonnegut is one of the better examples of this, particularly Slaughterhouse Five.

Secondly, you’ve got antimimetic unreliability, where the author wants to break down the fourth wall and critiques their own reliability. They deliberately call into question the validity of their narrator’s (or even implied author’s) statements. Salman Rushdie did this with Saleem Sidai in Midnight’s Children.

Next, there’s the contradictory narrator, who tells a story that’s a mass of contradictions. This is a single implied narrator or narrator-character, rather than multiple narrator-characters who counter each other. The example in my text book is Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, which I haven’t read or even heard of before.

And finally a disframed narrator – a narrator-character who claims to have written other books which were actually written by the real-life author who created that character. Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files just about falls into this category. I’m quite a fan of this form, as it blurs the boundaries between the character’s fictional world and the reader’s real one, which I think increases the reader’s ease of immersion.

In antimimetic fiction, you can also have narrator-characters that aren’t people, such as a horse (John Fowles’ Sweet William) or machines (Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad). Which made me realise that, by definition, all SF&F is antimimetic.

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Harry Dresden has a Twitter account. That’s dedication to disframing.

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Writing In Existing Worlds: In Defence of Fan Fic

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Welcome to 2016! I hope you all had very nice, relaxing holiday breaks filled with waaaay too much food and presents you genuinely liked. Before we get into the meaty stuff (warning: there are phrases like ‘chiastic structure’ on the horizon), I thought I’d start the year with something a little lighter. And also a confession:

My name is everwalker and I write fan fiction.

There was a time not so long ago when I might have been embarrassed to admit that. During the holiday, I had this conversation with a friend and prefaced it with ‘I don’t broadcast that I do this’. Then I began to wonder why not. Fan fic may have stigmas attached but it’s been an incredibly useful arena for learning and honing techniques. So much so that I went on to use some of them in my final submission for last year’s university module. I only started playing with fan fic last year, as a useful way to dump-write when I had an idea that wasn’t relevant to my current book (or just needed a break), and there’s a bunch of things I’ve learned in the process that are particularly worth noting. So I figured, what the hell, let’s talk about them. Because, on a blog about writing techniques, they’re totally relevant.

1. RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain)

The characters and setting are already well known. You don’t need to open your story by setting the scene or explaining personal histories because it’s understood that the readers already know all that jazz. You can get straight to the action, and this is an incredibly good habit to get into. In original fiction, maybe a tiny bit of scene setting is necessary but really you should be getting straight on with it. Back-plot can come later. The urge to explain at the start is very strong and writing fan fic has really helped me RUE.

2. Hey, That’s My Line!

Quite often in fan fic you’re using chunks of dialogue from the original book/film/TV series/anime/ancient Roman mosaic. The technique (and yes, it’s a legitimate technique) lies in expanding the script, putting a different slant on it without changing what the characters actually say (via body language, inner monologue, etc), or going deeper into an unusual POV. This really comes in handy when developing your own original scenes, because you’re then used to thinking about what the characters are saying in addition to what comes out of their mouths.

For the final assessment of the last university module, this was exactly the assignment I was given: rewrite a passage of dialogue from a play, using descriptive text, to give it a whole new meaning without changing the actual conversation.  The assignment tips said ‘you might consider issues such as when and how details of setting are given to the reader; whether every piece of dialogue from the script should be directly quoted; whether access is given to the thoughts of the characters – as cannot happen in a realistic modern play; whether the ‘fictional’ version is written from a particular character’s point of view – and which character that should be.’ I aced this assignment, and I did it on the experience of writing fan fiction.

3. Getting Under the Skin

This brings me onto the most important point: POV and characterisation. In certain storytelling media – such as film and TV – we generally can’t see inside a character’s head (except under unusual and often drug-fuelled circumstances). There is no inner monologue. We have to rely on body language and dialogue to interpret what’s going on and what the the characters are actually feeling. There is, in effect, no ‘voice‘ and thus we are a stage removed from the intimacy of the story.

In fan fic, however, we have the chance to go deeper into the characters and give them an inner monologue. Actually, it’s more than a chance – it’s an imperative. The readers have already seen the body language and heard the dialogue on screen. If you want them to spend time reading your story, you need to give them something new. So writing fan fic becomes all about really deep character interpretation, very close POV, intimate inner monologue.

This has been an incredibly valuable exercise. I tend by nature to be a primarily visual writer, putting down on paper what the mind’s eye sees but not necessarily conveying a feeling of personality. I am now learning how to write characters from the bones out, and it’s revolutionary. Well, it is to me.

4. It’s Not About Size, It’s What You Do With It

There’s a general perception that the majority of fan fic is basically porn. And that’s fair. But here’s the thing – to write effective porn, you must use words to really immerse your reader into the scene, to the extent where they don’t see ink and paper, they see what’s actually happening. Now, take away the sex and apply that principle to writing in general. Isn’t that what you want to do with the whole of your story? Immerse your readers so deeply that they feel what’s happening at a personal level? It’s not easy but there are techniques to it. Sentence structure plays very heavily into this, especially alternating between short, choppy declarations and long, rambling, conversational phrases. So does really honing your deep POV skills. The reason fan fic is useful for this is because it’s aiming for a very specific, very measurable emotional response. If it elicits it, well done – you’ve achieved immersive writing. If it doesn’t, you need to improve.

Here’s the other thing – a lot of the time, it’s not really about sex. It’s about building relationships on a page, often with a myriad of complications thrown in. Again, isn’t that what you want to do with your own characters? Maybe without the physical gymnastics but enough that your readers will cheer for them, cry for them, even rage at them for being so damn stupid. Above all, emotionally engage with them. If you get the techniques for that right, fan fic readers will tell you. And if you don’t, they’ll also tell you. It’s a very feedback-centric arena.

So, there you have it – I write fan fic and find it a useful training ground. Next week: what Homer, the Bible and JK Rowling have in common!