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I am writing a series of interconnected metafiction stories revolving around epic fantasy tropes. The basic premise involves gradually building up an epic narrative and then breaking it down, and the interaction between the original story and the deconstructed one. As such, the fictionality of all the characters is very central, because the over-arcing story approaches them as ideas rather than purely naturalistic characters.

When I explained the idea to a friend of mine who's read at least as much fantasy as I have, she seemed to like it, but insisted that I should focus on the readers as characters. Her argument was that she has no reason to care about the 'first-level' characters, because, "you just told me they aren't real." What I got from that is that metafiction breaks suspension of disbelief unless it includes meta-characters as well.

This is hard for me to grasp because I never did believe that the stories I read are real, nor want to. Part of my ability to enjoy stories so brutal and violent, and characters so gray and unlikeable, is rooted in the reassurance that, well, no one's getting hurt. Needing to believe the reality of the story is an idea I have trouble wrapping my head around.

Is this a typical example of a YMMV (warning! TV Tropes link) reaction, or is it more a gap between reader position and writer position? If it's the former, I can accept that. However, if I'm being blindsided by my status as the author, that's a bias I need to try and fix. After all, what's fun to write and what's fun to read can be very, very different.

In summation: Do readers need the option to believe that the events in the story really transpired? Is the (fictional) author the real main character of my story, as opposed to the characters that he created? Do I need to Watsinate my story?

  • This is very typical YMMV-ism, particularly when you and your friend are talking entirely abstractly about the story concept/premise, without your friend actually reading the stories you've written. – Standback Aug 27 '14 at 11:57
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Yeah, mileages do vary, and your friend might just be an oddball reader. Don't worry about it too much. Just write your story the way you want to write it, and see if it works.

That said, it's quite possible that you could get even your friend interested in the story without having to "Watsinate" it. What your friend is expressing concern about is that, if you openly describe your characters as fictional, your friend might end up losing interest in them "since they're only fictional", and might thereby end up uttering the eight deadly words.[TVTropes again!]

(One reason your friend may be concerned is that they may have been overexposed to the common technique where fiction within fiction is deliberately presented as cruder and less realistic[yeah, it's that site again] than the main story, in order to highlight its metafictionality and to differentiate it from the surrounding story. If that's what your friend (subconsciously) expects, it's no wonder they feel like a whole book full of such meta-story would be boring.)

To avoid your friend (and other readers like them) losing interest in your story, you need to get them to identify with the characters despite their acknowledged fictionality. The way to do that is simply to portray the characters as consistent, well-rounded individuals that appear to have a genuine personality and free will, even if they're "stuck in a fictional world." Ideally, your friend should end up feeling that, even if the world in which they live is purely (meta)fictional and subject to authorial whim, the characters still come across as realistic people whose goals and desires matter, rather than merely as hollow avatars of a nebulous author figure.

Of course, that's generally as desirable goal in writing, anyway, so in that sense your situation is in no way unusual. You may just have a bit more initial resistance to overcome, and may need to be a bit more careful with some things, such as if you wish to present the fictional author as directly influencing the characters' thoughts or personalities.

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Quick glance into European novels and movies: One of my favourite Czech writer is Jiří Kulhánek (link goes to English wiki page), who always writes in first person, his stories are (almost) always set in Prague, present time, there is (almost) always reference to actual things happening at the time when book is written ... but also, once he claims he is vampire, once he claims he is possessed by daemon...

And sometimes part of Prague gets demolished in really supernatural way.

But, the story is somewhat consistent. Reading it, I don’t believe that something like that actually happened. But the story sets some rules which are (almost) always followed.

Myself, I am more in parody style of writing. So, once I gave my super enemy character button Rule the world which actually could rule the world. Luckily, he was stopped by cunning, sexy, musculature main hero at the last time. And name of my arch Enemy is always Colonel Karpof

The inner rules make the reader to hold into.

I don’t care, that Klingons in the Star Trek are actually human actors with rubber forehead glued to their face. What makes Klingons really believable is, that there is culture in behind, there are some desires. And that makes them look real and believable.

Also, you don’t have to explain everything. Every Star Wars fan I know got totally angry when Episode 1 had to explain, that The Force is actually caused by Midichlorians in the blood. its the type of "Watsination" which actually caused more confusion than anything else.

The rule of thumb is, every character in your story should desire something. Even if it is glass of water.

Give your characters a life. Even if its about to end really soon. The lady you killed on the street was actually going to shop. The bus what exploded was driven by someone who will be missed. The story can be brutal, full of blood, full of superpowers,full of magic ... but make it consistent. Please

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It depends on the kind of story you're trying to tell, and the experience you want the reader to have.

I think that in your case, since you are creating characters which are meant to be read as archetypes rather than rounded people, you're fine with the Doylist (meta) approach.

If you do include metacharacters, then the metacharacters are the ones who are "experiencing" the story, and the reader is watching their story unfold (which is what happens in a non-meta book; the reader comes to the work to watch someone's story happen).

Essentially, is your book a movie or a role-playing game? Is your reader passively absorbing your story, or participating in it?

If it's an RPG, go for it. I think it sounds fascinating as an experiment. I also think it's going to be an acquired taste (as your friend's objection illustrates).

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