The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 10-14

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative is a book I’ve been chewing on now for several months, since it raises a number of issues about how to describe and think about narration but doesn’t (except occasionally and briefly) attempt to apply those terms or concepts to interactive literature. So this series has become less anything resembling a review than a set of responses and observations; although I am still trying to summarize the contents just enough that someone who might not want to read the whole book could come away with a clear sense of its subject matter and purpose.

Chapter 10 goes more deeply into issues of characterization, what it means to have a flat or rounded character, and the deployment of types.

In interactive work, we often invite the player in by offering her a stereotyped protagonist to start with — a character defined by genre tropes whose attitudes can be quickly and easily assumed — before (perhaps, not always) layering additional character traits in place later. There are of course exceptions to this: some genres and sub-brands, most notably tabletop RPGs and Choice of Games interactive fiction, conventionally allow for character creation as an opening to the rest of the story, so that the player is unlikely to be annoyed that the first decisions she must make exist just to define her personality.

The final section of the chapter touches on autobiography, which is a tricky and fascinating area for interactive narrative to attempt, especially if the work invites the player to try to take the role of the author. Abbott observes that life writing is necessarily performative; that to write one’s memoirs means taking an attitude to those experiences, and to cast oneself as a particular type of character, presumably with specific desired effects on the audience. Interactive autobiography is certainly unavoidably performative in this sense, while sometimes simultaneously requiring a matching performance from the player — demanding that the user enact the role of the protagonist according to the author’s own design, in a way that can be at once awkward and immensely powerful.

Chapter 11, Narrative and Truth, looks at the difference between fiction and non-fiction; the ways in which fiction could be said to be truthful without being nonfictional; the way a work is framed as fiction/non-fiction affects its meaning and reception; and the reader’s assumptions about how fiction maps to real life.

I semi-regularly encounter a naive assumption that non-fiction cannot be interactive because interactivity offers the player control over what happens, and therefore some of what happens must not correspond to what actually happened.

In practice, of course, there’s a substantial field of interactive documentary. Relatively little of this field overlaps with the interactive fiction world at all, though some pedagogical IF would probably qualify. There are loads of ways to interact with factual information that do not undermine its function as non-fiction: by selecting a viewpoint on an unchanging story; by interpreting or selecting elements for reading; by interacting with a narrative that is designed to be typical or exemplary without being about a named individual.

While investigating how narrative and truth relate, Abbott particularly calls out Marie-Laure Ryan’s “principle of minimal departure,” which says that we assume fiction lines up with our own real world except when the work explicitly calls out the exceptions. I think this is a strong observation, but not quite right. If I am reading a work of vampire fiction and the author is silent on the subject of wooden stakes, I will assume that wooden stakes through the heart are indeed fatal to vampires in this world — not because wooden stakes are actually fatal to actual vampires, as to the best of my knowledge none exist, but because the tropes of the genre form a kind of secondary structure between the specifics of this story and the details of the real world.

In Chapter 12, Narrative Worlds, Abbott gets into stories — some of which predate computer-based interactive storytelling — of the form he calls “forking path,” in which multiple conflicting plots co-exist in the same telling. This chapter recognizes Groundhog Day and Run, Lola, Run, but also older works such as The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee (1974) or In the Labyrinth (1959) in which a linear narrative traverses many possible paths.

I have the loose, untested impression that this form has proliferated recently: Russian Doll explicitly relies on video game metaphors, while Life After Life or The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle simply assume that the reader is comfortable imagining (with little initial explanation) a die-repeatedly-until-you-get-it-right kind of approach to life.

In Seven and a Half Deaths there is a specific goal set out for the protagonist, to detect who murdered the eponymous character, and most of the story takes the form of an intricate mystery which he investigates from inside the perspectives of several different characters who are all living the same day but whose consciousnesses allow him to access the events out of strict chronological sequence. It is a concept that could equally have been turned into interactive fiction and that bears a certain oblique formal kinship (if no kinship in tone or subject matter) with Stephen Granade’s Common Ground. Near the end of the novel, we learn that there is a different and broader significance to what is happening, but this reframing felt artificial and its moral heft slighter than that of what had gone before. It’s the midi-chlorian effect, the introduction of a “reasonable” explanation that in fact isn’t particularly reasonable and whose presence serves not to explain, but to undercut the thematic power of a story.

Both Life After Life and Russian Doll, by contrast, refrain from trying to explain how the protagonist’s death-and-rebirth came about exactly. Life After Life also mostly wipes the memory of Ursula Todd, whose lives these are, and starts her over from birth each time. Though there is an ultimate trajectory, erasing Ursula’s history and making many of her deaths unavoidable means this is less an exploration of how to live differently and better with practice, and more a Life’s Lottery-esque statement about how minor variations in circumstance can produce radically different outcomes. Life After Life, if it were assembled into a piece of interactive fiction, would be a time cave with branches of extremely varying length.

Russian Doll, though, would be a sort of gauntlet, or perhaps loop-and-grow, since each life builds to some degree on the others; there is an end for the protagonist to seek, though the goal is not made explicit at the beginning.

All of these stories assume that the reader will accept, and be sympathetic to, a story in which the protagonist restarts, and I have wondered whether this is a trope much readier to hand for authors since the introduction of video games.

But through his examples, Abbott demonstrates that the desire to tell stories this way predates the interactive forms.

The final two chapters, Narrative Contestation and Narrative Negotiation, talk about cases where multiple stories are pitted against one another (Abbott uses the example of a trial for this, but there are tabletop story games in which the players provide contesting narratives), and about how meaning is managed within a single work; finally ending with the suggestion that closure may be impossible.

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