Some Loosely Connected Thoughts on Interactive Fiction, Second-Person Perspective, and Writer’s Voice

I’ve been playing a lot of interactive fiction lately. I like the term “interactive fiction” a lot. As a writer it helps me justify my time-wasting so much better than, “games with text instead of pictures”.

If you’re not familiar with interactive fiction, it’s the type of game where descriptions print on the screen and you have to tell your character what to do. For example, the opening to an IF game might look something like this:

You step out of the wreckage of your dad’s Starspeeder 3000 onto the surface of the planet. The ground squishes beneath your feet like soggy bread, and the air of the planet, though breathable, smells distinctly of unwashed feet. To the east you see something swelling up from the earth that resembles nothing so much as an inverted mushroom covered in electric blue fur. From the north you hear a haunting kind of music that seems to swell with the wind. As you contemplate exactly how long you’re going to be grounded for crashing dad’s space ship, you realize how lucky you are to have landed on a planet with a stable magnetic field, for otherwise directions like “north” and “east” would have no meaning.

You’ll notice something about that little fragment. It’s all in second-person. There are probably exceptions to this, but for the most part these IF games are all written in second person, feeding descriptions and dialogue to “you” allowing you to immerse yourself in the adventure.

For a while now I’ve been thinking about a various ways second-person could be implemented in fiction. For whatever reason, there’s something inherently awkward about straight second-person in long fiction. It can work well enough in shorter stories, but once you stretch into novella length and beyond second person starts to feel tedious.

Part of the reason for this is that straight-forward second person feels as if someone has invaded your psychic personal space, telling you what you’re thinking, doing and saying, without you having any control over it. But maybe the way to make second-person more palatable would be to come at it indirectly.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me answer by asking you a question: which “person” is this blog post written in? Seems like most votes would go for first-person. After all you keep hearing me talk about myself and what my perspective it don’t you? But in the sentence before this one, “you” was the subject. Except you can clearly see that I’ve included first person elements and- okay yes, you caught me, I’m doing it again.

Point being, “person” isn’t as concrete a thing as you might’ve been led to believe. This is something I learned a good while back from reading a book of short stories by H. G. Wells. In many of these stories Wells would use a framing device in which a first-person narrator opened the story and then related the bulk of the narrative as something he’d been told by someone else. As such 95% of the story came through in third person despite technically being first person. And, since the framing-device narrator is speaking directly to the implied “you” that is the reader you could even argue that there is an implicit layer of second person there as well.

And here was where I thought I’d been struck by an epiphany. The key to making second person work might lie in making the person doing the telling a character as well as the person being told. If there were a distinct enough “I” delivering the “you” maybe it would translate into more readable second person fiction.

I say I “thought” I’d had an epiphany. Because what I realized later was this: it doesn’t matter which person you’re trying to tell a story in, there is always someone doing the telling. This is something that’s obvious to us in first-person fiction. When you’re writing first-person the teller is a character in the story. But when it comes to third-person we forget that the person telling that story is a character as well.

Now you might be thinking, “But I’m the one telling the story. I’m not a character.” But you forget that everything that makes it onto the page is filtered through you. You’re the one who tells some details and leaves others out. You’re the one who decides which characters you’re going to focus on and when. And, perhaps most importantly, you’re the one who decides the way the story will be told.

This is that mystic and unfathomable thing called “voice”. Except maybe it shouldn’t be so mystic and unfathomable. Because what it really boils down to is the author accepting his status as an “invisible character.” The audience is seeing the world though his eyes, and the fact that those eyes belong to him and no one else, matters.

When I write a story, the thing I’m saying without saying is, “Hi, I’m Albert. And I’m going to tell you a story.” And when I pick up a book to read, I’m entering into an implicit understanding with the author that he is going to deliver the tale from his heart in his words.

So when you sit down to write, in whatever person, don’t be afraid to let the you shine through the story. Always remember: you can’t tell a story without becoming part of the story. And if you do it right the story just might become a part of you.

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One response to “Some Loosely Connected Thoughts on Interactive Fiction, Second-Person Perspective, and Writer’s Voice

  1. Pingback: Mason’s Timepiece (Part 5) « Excursions Into Imagination

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