Many people think that being a writer means not being very interactive by default. You sit there alone in your room, typing words into your computer or drawing character charts on your note pad. It’s just you and the story, no one else needed.
Well, partly those people are right, but partly they couldn’t be more wrong. As a writer, your chosen profession is to tell stories. And even though you always start off telling them only to yourself, you already dream about making them public one day, to share them with the world, with an audience. This is the moment when you start to realise that writing a story is not a lonely or self-centred project at all. It’s more like trying to start some sort of conversation. You are not just an author, not just a writer, you are also a story teller and a sender of messages. You are communicating.
And that’s exactly where things start to get difficult.
Let’s say you finished your first draft and are now in the middle of editing. This is usually the time where doubts and questions run wild: Should I have explained the rules of this boardgame in chapter 3 more? Or described the ballet practice in chapter 6 in more detail? Is my protagonist really coming across as smart and charming, or rather annoying and calculating? Is it okay if that one minor character makes racist comments, or will that make me look racist? And if I write about an abusive, will everyone assume I had a horrible childhood?
Let’s say you are already one step further and working on getting your story published. In order to send it off to an agent or publisher, you have write a summary first of all, and part of that is defining who your potential audience might be. Sometimes this is the first time you actually start to wonder: Who have I written my story for? Does it really appeal to that specific audience? Who else might enjoy it?
Or let’s say you want to set up an author’s page, or you enjoy blogging and decide to run a blog that also features your writing. So what should your posts be about? Is it writing only, or can you also add personal thoughts? Do you have to write about football every week, just because your lastest novel features a football player? How about political statements, or very personal issues? Is it neccessary to to play a role, or can you show your ‘true self’?
Do any of those questions sound familiar? I bet they do.
And I also bet we all agree that answers to those questions can be difficult to come by, and will quite often start with “Well, it depends…”
However, all the questions featured above essentially aim at one core issue: the communication between author and reader.
So first of all, it might be helpful to get a little insight in the mechanics at work here.What is author-reader-communication, and why is it so difficult?
(Note that in the following, I will be talking about fictional books and stories, non-fiction follows slightly different rules. And sometimes I will barely scratch the surface of certain theoretical topics – e.g. narration as such – in order to provide an overview, not a detailed description.)
It’s safe to assume that we have all seem ‘communication models’ before. Simplified, a normal conversation can be illustrated like this:
At its core, every communication consists of a sender sending a message to a receiver. Peter (sender) telling Paul (receiver) about his last weekend (message). Or Sandy (sender) waving goodbye (message) at her fiance (receiver).
Starting from this basic model, we can build more detailed or more complicated ones:
This one adds the level of the medium, the way the message is brought across (writing, speaking, gestures…), and also emphasises the coding process going on pretty much ‘between the lines’. When Peter wants to tell Paul about the last weekend, he has to put his message into words (encode) that Paul can understand (decode).
“All right”, I hear you say. “I get it. That’s easy. As the author, I’m the sender. The reader is the receiver, and the book is the medium carrying my message.”
Yes. And no, not quite.
Yes, given that every communication follows those basic models, and therefore you are right. And no, because it’s more complicated than that.
Author-reader-communication is not exactly like Peter and Paul talking about their weekend. Most of the time, author and reader usually don’t know each other, they don’t see or hear each other, they can’t even be sure they speak the same language, or use language in the same way. (We have all written that one metapher that sounded great on our minds, but got us only a confused “What’s that supposed to mean?” from our beta-readers.)
And in case of a misunderstanding, Paul can just ask Peter how he meant that. The reader can’t, and as the author, we don’t get to see their reaction and therefore likewise can’t tell if our message came across the right way.
To make things even more complicated, reading a book is actually communication taking place on many different levels.
Looks really confusing? Well, don’t worry, it’s actually not that hard to understand.
We start from the inside. This is meant literally, as we not only target the innermost box first of all, but also start off inside the book: The first level is action.
It’s simply the characters talking to each other. Romeo telling Juliet about his undying love for her. Christian Grey asking Anastacia Steele to sign his contract.
Yes, it’s that easy – but also the first moment where misunderstanding is possible. As the reader, one has to be aware that it’s the characters talking here. Not the author. So if one character suffers from an abusive dad, or makes racist statements, it’s always wrong to simply assume the author was beaten as a child or is a terrible racist. Almost every author writes about murder at some point, but very few authors are actually murderers.
Likewise, as the author, I can not take it for granted that the reader will interpret the words of a certain character as my own words. I have to be more obvious than just giving the protagonist a long-winded speech about sociel injustice.
If we move on to the next level, it is important to note that we are still inside the book. The second level is narration.
Every story, every book has at least one narrator. This can be very obvious if the narrator is a character within the story (like the first-person narrator in Robinson Crusoe, or in Poe’s short stories) or less obvious, in case a story in told by an omniscient narrator. But even in case of the latter, there is a narrator, and that narrator is not the author, just like the narratee – the person the story is told to – is not the reader. Again, this is easy to notice in novels that are written in form of letters or diaries (where we know due to the names given who the writer is who the receiver is), and again much harder to pin down in a typical novel with an omniscient narrator who is also not telling the story to a specific person.
Misunderstanding that occur here are of a similar kind as on the first level. The reader has to be aware that the narrator of the story is not the author, not even if the person is talking as ‘I’, and that comments that an omniscient narrator makes about certain characters in the story are not neccessarily expressing the author’s opinion.
Likewise, the author has to be aware that it’s no possible to personally address the reader on this level. One simply can’t write a story tailor-made for aun unknown specific future reader, and one can never be sure that every reader will react to the story in the exact same way.
This is taking us straight to the next level. Now we are moving away from what is happing inside the book and more to the level of the book itself, to the text on the cover, if you want. The third level is implied communication .
Note that like the previous two, this is still a fictional level, meaning it does not involve ‘real’ people (the first level involved the characters in the book, the second level involved the narrator and the narratee, which can be either characters or abstract entities, but are still part of the fictional world of the book). Nevertheless, this is where most of the actual author-reader-communication takes place.
Here, the implied author communicates with the implied reader. What does the ‘implied’ mean? You could also use the word ‘imaginary’. It’s the mental image or the idea that both reader and author have of each other.
I personally love Stephen King and have read all of his novels. And even though I don’t know him personally, I have an idea what he is like. For example, he is interested in the darker sides of life, but still has a keen sense of humour. Going one step further, I can even try to picture his every day life, the house he lives in, how he talks to his wife, what kind of music he likes to listen to. All those ideas will be influenced by the fact that he is an author writing in the horror genre – so I will picture his house as a dark castle rather than a cute little cottage. This is the ‘implied author’ Stephen King, and everything about him is based on his writing, but otherwise just my imagination.
Likewise, when an author writes his book or tries to come up with a good teaser or cover picture, they will try to think of their ‘typical reader’ and aim to create something they would like. Needless to say, this ‘implied reader’ just exists on the author’s mind as well. It’s like a helpful tool, because as said above, we don’t know anything about the person that will eventually pick up and read our book. However, we tend to have at least a rough idea about what our ‘implied reader’ (the reader of a certain genre, the jury of that writing competition) might like. And that idea gives us something to ‘aim at’.
It’s easy to see where the danger of this level lies. Even though I think I know what my favourite author – or my typical reader – is like, this knowledge stems from my own imagination. Based on some selected facts, sure, but still my imagination. It’s an idealisation that might not correspond with the (non-fictional) truth, and I have to be aware of that.
Yet in addition, this level also offers a chance for authors when it comes to dealing with criticism. If an annoyed reader points out how much ‘the author’ disappointed them with their latest book, they are talking about the implied author, not about the real person that spend hours evaluating and typing every word. It can be worth remembering that if you don’t know a reader personally, they can never attack you on a personal level. Their criticism might still hurt – since the implied author is, in a way, as much the real authors creation as the plot and the characters are – but it can never hurt as much as a ‘real life’ personal attack.
And finally, we get to the outmost layer. Finally, things get non-fictional, as this is about real people. The real author (e.g. Stephen King), the real reader (e.g. Sandra Müller who lives near Berlin, Germany), two human beings that have never seen or met each other, and most likely never will. The forth level is non-fictional communication.
This communication has to take place outside the book. Yet with some authors and readers, it will never happen at all. If the reader does not care who the author really is, as long as the books are good, or if the author is hiding behind a pseudonym and has no interest in ever meeting or talking to their readers, then this level of communication is pretty much non-existant. Pretty much, since it will still exist on the level of “I read in the newspaper that this famous author is getting divorced.” or “I overheard someone in the bus talking about my book.” As one core rule of communication says, it’s impossible to not communicate.
But what happens if the author and the reader (the ‘real people’) put in effort and try to get in touch with each other? A fanletter, for example, a meeting at a lecture, or a book fair. Or a personal blog that the author runs to show the readers some facets of the ‘real person behind the book’.
As fascinating as this can be, this level is also not without danger. Most importantly, disappointment. Finding out that the author who wrote so passionately about rock music actually prefers opera. Or discovering that the tough male crime writer is actually an insecure, elderly lady. Or realising that your self-declared ‘biggest fan’ is quoting lines from your book to justify their racial prejudices.
An as authors, we are really terrified of disappointing our readers. Disappointed readers just leave, and will never come back. They won’t attend our lectures, won’t buy our books.
This is why many authors actively try to build a persona close to the ‘implied author’ in order to appeal to their readers, or why they try to keep personal things out of their blog posts, at least if they don’t match the topics of their books.
Our medium – the book or the story – is fictional, so doesn’t it actually make sense that our communication should primarily stay on the fictional level?
Where is the ideal balance between the safety of giving the readers what they expect (the implied author) and offering them a tiny glimpse at the person behind the writing (the real author)?
I know that everyone has to answer those questions for themselves, but I’m really interested in your opinions.