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- Under the Influence
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Getting across a picture of a character is always difficult in first person narratives, which can trap the writer between the character’s self-image and the reader’s credulity. Most of the more overused devices don’t even work in blog fiction, as the characters are unlikely to catch sight of themselves in a mirror while typing in front of a monitor, or to relate their glimpse of themselves in a shop window as a key aspect of their day. However, blogfic offers some tools for legitimate character self-presentation that are worth investigating.
First, there’s the personal profile: an opportunity to explain who the character is and what to expect from their blog in their own words. A gift, I thought. I was wrong; these turned out to be the most difficult four short paragraphs of the entire project. Deliberate self-description is an even more self-conscious process than blogging – and in any other kind of first-person narrative I wouldn’t go near it. In a blog-aware blogfic, though, it’s almost compulsory. Who doesn’t have a profile on their blog? The profiles aren’t just character information, they’re hints at how confident the character is, how well they know themselves, what image they want to present the world. I re-wrote Mei’s a dozen times before deciding that all the detailed information I wanted to give on her artwork or how she saw the world would make her appear far more self-assured than she is, at least at this point in the story. She does have an observant and sophisticated outlook, but she doesn’t yet have the confidence to show it. Making an eighteen-year-old too perceptive and articulate about her own abilities – in a second language, too – might also push some of her later concerns and oversights beyond credibility. I thought I’d let her start out a little reticent to put herself forward, and gain confidence as she has cause to discover the extent of her capabilities. Jack was a little easier: he knows what he’s good at and what he wants out of life, he just doesn’t yet know that succeeding in these things will take harder work than he’s prepared to put in. Narrators unaware of their flaws are much easier than those unaware of their talents. I wanted to show Elaine using humour as her shield, confident enough of her insecurities that she knows how to make a virtue of them. Her voice always came more easily to me than the others. It took me a ridiculously long time to realise that Ash needed to just be entirely straightforward on who he is, what he does and why he’s blogging. Ash does good-humoured, slightly condescending civility very well, but not pretence.
Subtler, but in a lot of ways just as telling, are the blog designs. When any of us choose our themes, colour schemes, menus, fonts and graphics, we make decisions influenced by our own preferences, our ideas about the world, our ideas about ourselves, our ideas about how we want others to see us (and yes, even when I’m attempting dark and edgy, I do it in purple). For Jack and Elaine, I chose quite showy and stylish themes that made a feature of their profiles, while Ash’s and Mei’s were subtler and more functional. After initially experimenting with more elaborate, colourful designs, I chose an understated theme for Mei, allowing the artwork in her banner to be the central focus. I commissioned artwork for Mei and Jack, and created, found or customised open source images for everything else I needed.
In order to make the artwork for Mei’s banner fit the theme, I chopped the image into overlapping slices, with a random section of the image shown on each refresh of the page, and I’m pleased with the effect of this. In keeping with Mei’s outlook and the multi-character blog form itself, it shows pieces of the picture and leaves the viewer to form an idea of the whole themselves (though I’m taking the opportunity to show the whole thing here, because it does look good.) This view of Mei’s world will change over the course of the story.
The artwork for Jack’s blog was also part of the character’s self-presentation – the banner is his joke, covering all his interests (like all Jack’s artwork, drawn superbly by Arthur Goodman).
I’m also having fun with the character avatars. As the character’s self-chosen visual representation, an Avatar can say a lot. I started off with the images that the characters chose to represent themselves:
I decided on a blurred photo for Mei because I wanted it to describe an emotion, an outlook, rather than the details of her physical appearance. Jack’s always had to be a cartoony self-portrait, and a mildly self-deprecating one worked to give him some context. Elaine, like Mei, represents her general emotional state and, like Jack, uses a humorous cartoon image to do so, but unlike either of the younger characters she doesn’t use a picture that looks anything like herself. Ash doesn’t even use a picture of a human, but of one of the pet chickens mentioned in his first entry. I wanted to leave the reader to guess why he chose this image and what, if anything, it is meant to say about him. He may or may not see himself as in some way chicken-like, but he certainly wouldn’t be insulted by the comparison. What’s more important is that he doesn’t present a visual face to the world. While the younger characters say “This is me” and Elaine says “This is what I’m like”, Ash only says, “This is a chicken – make of that what you will”. I thought that Ash would be less bothered than the other characters about presenting a persona, and any human image – even a plain, straightforward photograph of himself – couldn’t help but do that. Of course, the chicken does, too, but less self-consciously, more ambiguously, because the possible interpretations come more from the reader than from Ash.
The change of all the character avatars to Jack’s drawings after his first post has three main effects:
Firstly, it tells us (with allowances for Jack’s artistic license) what the characters look like, and tells us it on every page in which they post or comment, which is obviously a useful device for a writer reluctant to shoehorn physical descriptions into their first person narratives. Secondly, it presents the characters as a matched set, a team: the Bad Influences, four people with a connection. Thirdly, Jack usurps the other characters’ self-presentations, replacing them with his representations of them. If any of them don’t really want to change their avatars, they are too polite or flattered or touched to say so, but they may change them again in subversive or symbolic ways as the story progresses. These changes will, of course, be lost on readers who come to the story later, as a change of avatar retroactively changes every instance of it. However, the changes will be referred to, briefly, in the text, will add to the real time narrative, and can also be shown in the hard copy.
This particular device also came with a disadvantage that was pointed out to me recently: these avatars are very prominent on the main website, linking to the character blogs, and their cartoony style is quite incongruous with the site and with the themes of the story. While regular readers will know that these are the avatars that Jack drew for the characters, a first-time visitor to the site is faced with some confusing and possibly off-putting portrayals of them. I’m considering what to do about this, and how I can make the next change of avatars fit better with the overall design without compromising their function.
A lot of these devices can be so useful and so telling, it’s easy to overuse them. I think the reason I found the balance so difficult to strike was that my head was full of what I wanted to say about the characters, tempting me to do much more with their profiles and avatars than was necessary. I had to bury my ideas under what the characters wanted to say about themselves, and then bury those ideas under the characters’ self-awareness, self-consciousness and self-confidence. The exercise became easier when I realised I could say as much with what the characters chose to withhold as with what they told.
How well I struck that balance has been the subject of much discussion: here, on WFG and in private. Perhaps developing interest in the characters is dependent on having interest in some of the features I’ve used to develop them. I do very much take the point about the lack of active character development in the early weeks, and I can’t work on the assumption that everybody who stops by is going to dig deep or wait patiently for that information. To the reader using only an RSS feed, these features are much like DVD extras, only watched by those who enjoyed the main feature enough to make those extra clicks. As I pointed out in the last post, these devices are extra tools, not replacements for active character development.
Much more integral is the character development and interaction that takes place through the comments, and that some readers have told me they’re not bothering with these is problematic. In these sections, self-conscious self-presentation is thrown in with interpretation, advice and sometimes interference from outside. Through friendly banter, awkward posturing and outright antipathy, the characters battle for the prevailing viewpoint in these sections that work a little like dramatic dialogue, a little like graffiti, a little like telegrams or greetings cards, but mostly like blog comments. If I see characters commenting on a blogfic (rather than just readers), I tend to consider that an essential element of the story, but obviously that isn’t always the convention, insofar as blogfic can be said to have a formal convention on this point. Uses of comments vary wildly. They can be a way to offer the author feedback, to question the characters (with commenters in or out of character themselves), to show multiple character interaction with or without readers joining in, or function as a reader community. I’ve used them for essential, plot-based character-interaction and in-character reader participation, and due mostly to the constraints of academic process I’ve formalised this more than any other blogfic I’ve seen, which might be what’s putting some readers off from diving in. I do see what I’m doing with them as a pretty intuitive use of the form, in that it takes its cues from existing conventions in non-fictional uses of blogs, but if they don’t interest people or are considered an “extra”, I’ll have to find ways of working some of their revelations into the entries themselves – or find ways to make readers look. I’m hoping Mei’s latest entry has worked to encourage this by ending on a sort of cliff-hanger. To find out if Mei went into her sick neighbour’s room, you’ll have to read the comments.
My guess is that a different style of reading is required for some of these elements to do their work, that reading blog fiction requires different expectations and a more exploratory, non-linear approach than the novel. That said, I can do all the formal analysis I like and it doesn’t change existing reader expectations, or stop people turning away if they’re not getting what they came for. I’d hoped I could construct Bad Influences in such a way that it would reward more active reading while still being absorbing enough on the surface to keep readers coming back, perhaps drawing them into the other features over time. Some readers feel it’s delivering – if too slowly – some aren’t convinced it ever can. I have from now until November to draw conclusions, and feedback is much appreciated.