Sleight of hand. Distraction. Misdirection. Drawing attention to what’s hidden in plain sight. In fiction, we call these plot twists or hidden depths, but the mentality is the same. Just as the magician tricks the audience into believing their improbable feats, so to does the writer manipulate their audience into believing the reality they created. Joy, anger, sadness. All directed towards that which is not real, but feels so.
How effective the manipulation depends on the interplay between illusionist and audience. It is easiest to impress those who have never seen the tricks before; less so the jaded who have seen the tricks a hundred times.* And yet, they can still be won over; for instance, by introducing the standard trick merely as a set-up for a new spin on the classic (as Penn and Teller show). Knowing the audience is key to manipulation.
Of course, though, manipulation can also be used to unscrupulous ends. If you have someone capable of making coins disappear, you can probably imagine what other applications that could have. It would be absurd to comment on how artistically done a pickpocketing job was, and yet so many art critics take that approach to writing; attempting to detach the art from the propaganda. This is not possible. All issues are political issues; all art attempts to convey a point of view.
*As a personal example, while many were overjoyed at the nostalgia trip that was Toy Story 3, I was unimpressed soon afterwards. Why? Because I’ve already seen The Brave Little Toaster.
Now we consider the more savvy audience members. The kind who enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. The kind who closely and analytically observe the illusion to identify the realism behind the magic. Some of them even enter the creative process themselves, calling themselves postmodern.
The engineers consider their work a response to the magicians. Indeed, their style appeals to the critics who dedicate their lives to taking media apart and analyzing it. However, these techniques: metafiction, fourth wall awareness, intertextuality, unreliable narrators, are tricks in themselves reminiscent of the Penn and Teller approach to magic. And as such, they primarily impress those that have never seen the tricks before. But these are classic tricks, at least as old as the 1600s and Don Quixote.
Nonetheless, since fiction is a reflection of reality, it is natural to ask questions of where to draw the line. When you willingly let yourself fall under the creators’, it is useful to ask, to what end? The analytical approach can offer valuable insight into plot conventions or character archetypes that would otherwise be neglected, and every writer worth their salt should at least be thinking about the implications of their work. In addition, the engineer is the type of person who places particular emphasis on novelty, brainstorming ideas to set themselves apart from the crowd.* However, just remember; all this too is part of the illusionist’s show.
*Worth noting, my graduate studies are in a scientific field, and figuring out what makes your paper different from everyone else is the most important part of getting published.
Whether it be the manga collecting nerd, or the European classic collecting academic, this is the audience who has an extensive breadth of experience with their devotion of choice. They know, for instance, the historical popularity of certain plot tricks, the influences across time from ancient mythology to the then-modern popular culture, how such works differ across cultures and audiences, and the interplay between media and the real world.* Like the engineers, they bring a similar “seen it all” mentality to the show.
Naturally, one that has devoted so much of their time to one thing would often be motivated towards the creative process to pay homage to their favourite things. Or perhaps they prefer to mock the more absurd conventions, though even parody requires one to have some appreciation for their target if they are to expend so much effort lampooning it. A well-informed, well-read creator can enrich their work with history or take their creations in bold new directions by combining multiple influences from fiction and real life. In a sense, they are like the engineers, but with a different background.
*Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of bad movies because of how fun it is to analyze why in particular something is bad; for instance, the sheer depth of critical analysis dedicated to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Anyone who wants a taste of that can check out Greg Sestero’s autobiography The Disaster Artist. You’ll be amused as to how the bizarre scenes came to be.
What is the purpose of escapism? To imagine yourself as someone else, somewhere else. To imagine a life without prejudice or pain, or to be reminded that you are not alone in your experiences. By immersing yourself in a story, you become an actor in your own imagination, taking on the role of a character closest to your own. This is most obvious online, taking the form of Tumblr role-play blogs and the like, where even minor characters take on a life of their own.
Naturally, it is easiest to come up with stories that you have personally experienced. How then, does one imagine that which is different from them? It’s definitely possible; you have young directors telling compelling stories about the elderly, for instance. And people have experiences told every day: from friends divulging their inner secrets, from family reminding you what life was life back in their day, even conversation on the bus. Observation, listening, empathy, those go a long way towards creating compelling illusions that feel like the real thing. Stories can be a powerful way of reaching out to the audience, both through the show itself and directly interacting with fandom.
A lot has been said about representation. Here’s my take: as mentioned, the audience often uses stories as a form of role playing. They want to see themselves. So even if a minority character is underdeveloped, even if a female character is ignored, people will cling to them because they want an avatar.* They want to be a part of that world. They don’t want to be left out. So if you’re a creator, shouldn’t you treat your characters with respect? Shouldn’t you give your audience the opportunity to live out their dreams, whoever they are?
*Worth noting, the reason why I enjoy the Nelvana dub of Cardcaptors, even despite all the edits? It’s because Sakura is portrayed as braver and more of a tomboy. To my knowledge, that’s not particularly common for magical girl shows, let alone for a character to be so comfortably androgynous without comment. I also enjoy the live-action Grinch movie because Jim Carrey’s Grinch is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of my own struggles with depression. Yeah, it’s an weird take on it, but it works. Those are a few examples of why I may deviate from the consensus opinion on things.
Who owns stories, the creator or the audience? Obviously, I spent this entire blog post arguing for both of them, that it’s a false dichotomy, but it’s still worth examining the underlying mentality between possible answers. One might say that a creator’s work is art that must be carefully preserved; that any changes to it are akin to vandalizing the creator’s vision. Others might say that the story belongs to the one telling it; that even if a previous storyteller did not tell it the same way, the next one brings their own perspective and interpretation.
Personally, I lean towards the latter response, because I see storytelling in the vein of the oral tradition in which stories would be passed from generation to generation. In addition, the audience often sees a story differently from its original creator. A character that may seem sympathetic to a writer may not come off that way to a reader due to their differing life experiences. So I’m not a fan of literalism. But it is an open question, so others may have different arguments. After all, everyone approaches stories differently, and acknowledging those different faces makes them all the more compelling.