- Start Reading
- Under the Influence
- Take Part
I had an entry on character exposition in blogfic ready to go up a couple of weeks ago, but after so much discussion on why my character exposition wasn’t working as well as it might for some readers, I thought I’d make some revisions, or at least clarifications. I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting any of the blogfic-specific devices I’m going to talk about here are any substitute for a rounded, believable voice and character development within the narrative. In fact, I’d say that without a clear idea of a character’s background, voice and motivations, it’s impossible to use these devices to much effect. They’re not so much alternatives to traditional character exposition as additional tools, and if you use them just because they’re there without any thought to what you’re doing with them, you’re likely to be hacking at your work with a blunt instrument rather than carving the fine detail.
When I was designing the characters’ blogs, creating the initial avatars and writing the profiles, I was reminded of some of the observations I’d made about the self-conscious first person. These are character-descriptive features unique to blogs, heavily immersed in the characters’ online personas. There are equivalents in non-digital epistolary forms: Diary of a Wimpy Kid with its illustrations and notebook-lined pages, and The Story of Tracey Beaker, with its margin-doodles and tacked-in photos. It’s more difficult to think of fictional diaries of adult characters that contain the scrawlings and clippings of real-life journals. Bridget Jones’ obsessive recording of her weight and alcohol consumption are the closest I can think of, contained though they are in neatly polished, chapter-length summaries. I’m not entirely sure why we consider this tangible, non-verbal evidence of character so inappropriate for adult literature, but I suspect it’s something to do with the criticisms I’m getting of a focus on the text at the expense of the narrative, the idea that: “If Bad Influences were a person, it’d be spending too much time talking about itself.” I take this on board – the characters up to the point of that comment had spent more time analysing their surroundings than interacting with them – but the inclusion of these textual features doesn’t preclude more active forms of character development. I think that perhaps the reason this kind of self-referential epistolary is more acceptable in children’s literature is that children are allowed, even expected to be a little self-centred, to express themselves purely for their own satisfaction, creatively, using multiple media, in a way that most adults would be embarrassed to admit to still enjoying – as writers or readers.
Bloggers are a little more self-absorbed than that. We write like children in that sense, focussing on what’s important to us and using any device available to express ourselves. I write this blog as much to clarify my thoughts and refer back to for my research as to tell others about the project and the processes behind it. Not that I don’t want others to read and respond – that’s all part of clarifying those thoughts, it prompts further expression, and it’s fun – but at the end of the day, this blog is for me. Likewise, my characters – while writing, to an extent, for each other and for any passing stranger who’s interested – are primarily writing for themselves. They get to do the childish thing, they get to create a multimedia platform for their own creative self-expression, and to have fun with it to whatever extent their self-consciousness, self-confidence and self-awareness will allow.
Non-epistolary fiction – even when it’s first person – can hide behind the pretence of stream-of-consciousness or abstract narration. The protagonist isn’t writing their words down and certainly doesn’t know that we’re reading them. Though we’ll hear their voice, they won’t be aware of it, won’t modify it for our ears, won’t catch us listening. Diarists and bloggers are aware of the text, and bloggers are even aware of the reader, who is possibly a little uncomfortable at being caught in their voyeurism. It’s all very well for children to want to read each other’s scribbles, but there’s something distasteful about adults watching other adults deliberately and publicly bare their souls without modesty or decorum. Except, of course, we do want to see each other’s souls – we just don’t want to be seen seeing them. If we’re going to read or write adults’ diaries, we have them pretend as hard as they can to be novels, split them into chapters rather than entries, arrange them into a neat chronology, keep the plot galloping and the introspection incidental, and try not to include too many reminders of the nature of the text, certainly no doodles in the margins that remind us that the character, too, is aware of the medium and inviting us to participate in it: doodles such as reader commentary, interactive widgets, shareable quizzes. In blog fiction, it’s not just the medium, or the characters, but the reader, too, who can be self-conscious. BI does talk about itself a lot – but that’s only a problem when the reader dismisses those textual references as distractions from the narrative, instead of integrated parts of it (or when the writer uses them as such, to be fair).
I can see why this should be the case – it plays havoc with our expectations of the reader-text relationship, and that’s uncomfortable for an experienced reader. It distributes narrative over multiple variables in time, place and authorship, it hides narrative elements where you didn’t think to look for them and sometimes fails to put them where you’d like to see them. It makes the reader work for their reward, which makes it more disappointing than other forms when it fails to deliver. But I think it can deliver narrative experiences that other media can’t. I’m not yet at the point of being able to articulate these clearly, but I’m pushing on with the experiment and with the narrative use of features unique to blog fiction, even if not all readers are keen on them.
BI is full of digital doodling in the margins. Some aspects of it work better than others, some are harder to get right than others. The blog designs blend into the character background so that you take in the details without knowing that you’ve done so. The avatars are showier, but also have their subtleties – and will develop more as the story progresses. The character profiles scream their presence, and were very difficult to do – the most excruciatingly self-conscious section of a self-conscious form, they were always in danger of slipping into self-indulgence. They’re the most changed and edited few hundred words of each character’s story.
Next entry, I’ll talk more about how I used these features in BI and their potential for blog fiction generally.