Tuesday, November 11, 2003

In the Round

One of the greatest challenges that stage magicians can attempt is to perform their magic "in the round," that is, to allow the audience to surround the magician on all sides. This vastly complicates the design of the magic trick, because there is no "safe" direction in which the trick's secret could be visible (with the exception, perhaps, of directly behind the magician for handheld tricks). (Since I'm writing about literature here, I'll point to Christopher Priest's The Prestige, the finest novel about stage magicians ever written.)

Full-on hyperstories have a similar problem. For the kind of stories in which a reader can hop from viewpoint character to viewpoint character, the act of design of the story becomes much more difficult. Just as stage magic in the round, it's not impossible, but it removes an important tool. In fact, it removes the same tool for both magicians and authors: obscurity. Imagine writing a murder mystery, for example, in which the reader could freely inspect what each character in the old hotel was doing at any time.

The problem goes deeper. Forster talks about "round" characters and "flat" characters, by which he really just means characters with convincing inner lives as opposed to simple characters that serve only as reflections or dialog. (Perhaps it's characters that could pass the Turing test and those that can't.) But, just as in a movie set of a Western town, where the storefronts are really just single sheets of plywood with nothing behind them, giving the reader the ability to walk around the set will reveal the flatness. Again, this doesn't make it impossible, but it represents a significant design constraint. How does the author create so many convincing characters without revealing too much information? How does the author indicate to the reader which characters have inner lives, and which don't, without spoiling the sense of openness?