26 January 2010

Thoughts on the self-conscious first person

Blog fiction is a very self-conscious form. Novels in the first person don't necessarily portray the face that the character intends to show to the world; a stream-of-consciousness or internal monologue voice can observe and reflect freely, totally unaware of the reader. Most epistolary is written from the viewpoint of a character who either expects never to be read (diaries) or to be read by only one other person (letters). Yes, there are forms where the character expects a broader readership, and the author plays on the form of memoirs or autobiographies, but the implied writer is, in those cases, so distanced from the implied reader that they1 can say almost anything they like.

Blogs are both public and intimate. The character writes for friends and strangers alike, and may expect replies from both, possibly challenging ones. A blogger has to be careful what they say and how they say it, because they're directly answerable to their readers (and since you ask, yes, I am a little anxious right now). It may be that they don't care what their readers think, or even spark arguments deliberately, but these are equally self-conscious positions to write from. My point is that a character in Blog Fiction is not merely the narrator of their story, but a self-aware narrator, who decides consciously how they will portray themselves and those around them, which aspects of their lives they will write about, and which they won't. This puts in my writer's toolkit that fun little gadget, the unreliable narrator.

Most first person narrators are in some sense unreliable - if only because if they were to instantly understand and explain everything that's going on, there wouldn't be much interesting plot to discover. Narrators are usually unreliable because they're missing something - they don't understand their situation as well as the reader does. Traditionally, the unreliable narrator is honest but mistaken. But what about an unreliable narrator who's being deliberately dishonest? In a traditional first person form, this is a hard one to pull off . When the liar is your only source of information, being informed at the end that it was all lies seems like a pointless Deus ex Machina (though it's been pulled off successfully in some detective stories). The clues to the truth have to have been there throughout for the reader to feel deceived rather than just cheated. But if the narrator is the guardian of those clues, and a highly self-conscious one at that, how does the reader get to them? Without making the implied writer stupid enough to give the game away unintentionally, how does the reader even find out there is a game? Where does the doubt come from?

That's where the 'multiple characters' format (a distinct type of Blog Fiction, as defined by DustinM on Blog Fiction) comes in handy. All these first person characters are not merely self-consciously writing their own stories but scrutinising each other's. They may not be looking specifically for inconsistencies, but they know each other, and they can spot when something isn't quite right. They can challenge, berate and encourage each other, or go behind each other's backs. They have secrets from each other and secrets amongst themselves. And just because they're self-conscious about what they say, they don't have to be entirely conscious of their own motivations at all times. Unreliable narrators may be more successful at fooling themselves than their friends. So what I'm trying to create with Bad Influences is not four 1st person stories that stand alone, but an overall story of how those four characters interact, communicate and influence one another - in honesty and deceit, for good and bad. The story in the comments is, I'm realising, going to be as big as any of the character blogs.

1 I'm with LeGuin on the use of the plural pronoun as gender-neutral singular, and I'm gong to have to ask you to deal with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment