Victims of the author

Imagine that you are walking past a lonely graveyard at night, when you hear a terrifying shriek, improbably smell garlic or blood, and see white things flitting about. You run home as fast as you can, lock the door, and then start to wonder. What is going on?

Your answer to the question will depend in part on your beliefs about the universe.

If you’re a character in a book or film, however, the objective answer will depend on the genre – to be frank, whether you’re in a story by Agatha Christie, or one by Edgar Allan Poe. You the fictional creation really need to know this… but since you don’t hear the soundtrack and haven’t read the blurb, you don’t know.

The reader or viewer knows, of course, and thus has an unfair advantage over the characters. These unfortunates not only don’t know the genre, they don’t know there’s a genre to know. Or a coherent plot. If you knew you were in a traditional detective story, you’d not only be confident that the murderer would be caught, you could make some pretty smart guesses as to who it was: the person who’s just important and distinctive enough, just not too obvious, or whatever.

The other night the Blogger rewatched the delightful film “Stranger than Fiction”, whose premise is I think unique. The protagonist Harold hears a voice in his head narrating his actions, and comes to realise that he is a character in someone else’s still being written novel. Worse still, the plot is going to involve his death. Is there anything he can do about this?

Part of the film’s charm is that the Narrative Voice is the instantly recognisable one of Emma Thompson, and the literary expert Harold consults is the equally familiar Dustin Hoffman. On his advice, Harold (Will Ferrell) makes notes in a little book to try to ascertain if he’s in a comedy or a tragedy.

The story concentrates on how and whether he can avoid death. It sidesteps the logical questions of where he was before Karen Eiffel (Thompson) thought of writing “Death and Taxes” – or alternatively how she came to have the power to control the lives and thoughts of her fellow citizens.

But long before seeing this film, I had thought that characters would really like to know their genre, and have even fantasised about minor figures waiting “backstage” as it were, trying to deduce whether they’re going to be elves in the Hidden Kingdom, foot-soldiers in the Hundred Years’ War or teachers at a 1930s boarding school.

In about the year 2000 I gave up on the publication of “People of Makkera”, the original Tale from Ragaris. In 2013, I was abruptly confronted by Dorac Kingsbrother going into exile. Between these dates, I made one other attempt at drafting a novel. It was called “The Story of a House.”

Two teenage girls, J and L, realise that they are characters in a story, and always have been – their fairly normal lives up to now are backstory. (One of the clues to this was realising that their town doesn’t appear on other towns’ maps, and has a Roman-type name without any Roman remains. They also notice that they are members of a close-knit group of friends with very little in common, which is convenient for teen fiction but unlikely in real life.)

This gives them a few things to think about other than homework and boyfriends.

Is either of them the story’s protagonist? No.

Once they’ve worked out who is, do they have an obligation to help her sort out the plot, at any personal cost? (They disagree on this.)

What kind of book is it?

When is the drama going to begin, or has it already?

Are they going to survive?

And perhaps most cogently, assuming the Author doesn’t kill them off, what will happen to them the day after the story finishes?

The workings-out for this tale became sufficiently complicated to involve three levels of plotting and writing: what was happening to J and L; the first-person narrative of the official “heroine”, who didn’t have their knowledge; and the backstage psychology of the Author.

I’m not sure where I’ve put the notebook. It’s probably somewhere around.

I still think someone should write a tale like this, and indeed maybe they have. Perhaps I’ll finish “The Story of a House” someday; but as we all know I’ve already got quite a long writing to-do list.

I think we can all relate to Harold, and perhaps to J and L, because back in real life, all of us feature  in various plots, and perhaps in one overarching one. But is it a comedy, a tragedy, or meaningless improvisation?

Love from the PPI Blogger

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