Tag Archives: writing fiction

Q&A: Metafiction; the story inside the story inside the story inside the… uh… yeah.

Bungou Stray Dogs has a mafia that uses a few teenage characters with useful/deadly powers. Any tips on making them realistic in fanfiction without being weak or useless? There IS trauma involved but trauma doesn’t always show up immediately/in readily recognizable ways especially in teenagers. The characters also have varying levels of maturity and ambition. Even if it’s wrong, it wouldn’t make sense for the CRIMINAL boss to NOT use teens if they could be useful even on the short term.

Okay, so, this is a very defensive question. You’re asking for tips, but arguing on the tips you expect us to give you. There’s a mistaken assumption that criminals don’t use teens because it’s morally wrong, and not because it’s, well, bad for staying in business because teenagers are less reliable than seasoned professionals for mob hits, or that’s just a lot of responsibility to trust to someone so young. Criminal organizations do use children, they just don’t usually use them to do anything important (like kill people.)

There’s even all caps.

None of that is important though. We’re talking about an anime where Herman Melville transforms into the ghost of Orson Welles and takes off into the night sky. The entire argument you’re trying to make just isn’t applicable. So, let’s talk about a very special genre called metafiction instead.

Bungou Stray Dogs is both an anime, and a piece of metafiction. When discussing how this piece of media handles its characters or structures its plots, realism is not even a tertiary concern.  The anime doesn’t care. If you’re writing fanfiction in the world created by this medium neither should you. Now, let’s talk about about this small piece of the literary genre called metafiction; where there is a contextual narrative within the narrative based entirely on your familiarity with the other narratives being referenced.

Let me drop this in front of you,

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
If you are a someone who came out of an education system from a former British colony you should have some passing recognition of this stanza, even if you don’t know who the author is.  (Or, you slept through you’re high school English classes.) This is from William Blake’s “The Tyger“, and, no, this isn’t just a literary joke based on the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs transforms into a tiger under the moonlight. No, this is a reference to the fact the protagonist of Bungou Stray Dogs is named after Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima, who was a fan of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphisis” and whose story “Sangetsuki” features a man who transforms into a tiger. “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”

This is an on the nose reference which would be immediately obvious to a Japanese audience, just like so many other characters featured in Bungou Stray Dogs, but would require a fair amount of digging from someone not well versed in classic Japanese literature. Which, I’m not, I had to look it up.

When you’re talking about a narrative this deep into Japanese literary history and culture, whose characters and their powers are based on other characters from other more famous stories you never read because you didn’t go to a Japanese high school, you have to realize that they’re not discussing the “mafia” in any realistic fashion. No, they’re talking about the Yakuza and not the Yakuza as they exist in the real world. We’re talking about the Yakuza as they exist in classic Japanese literature and as a cultural touchstone within their media.

An example is the Italian mafia as seen in The Godfather and not the Italian mafia from Goodfellas. One embraces the cultural idealization of the mafia, while the other… well, is trying for a biographical portrayal of an ex-mafioso’s life and experiences in the mob. Watch both, you’ll find very different movies working underneath the surface.

Metafiction, at heart, is a story within a story using characters/individuals or basing itself on characters who are either public domain or simply easily recognizable via simple motif. Metafiction relies heavily on a cultural contextual awareness of these characters (or historical individuals). These characters need no introduction because you’re expected to already know who they are. You know. The story lies in how they interact with each other, but their underlying narrative is one of exploration about these pieces of art in comparison and contrast, their values, their political views, their social mores, and how they interact with each other.

The surface story is John Locke and Thomas Hobbes hook up to fight crime in Victorian London. The underlying narrative explores the philosophical views of Locke and Hobbes as they deal with the human and societal circumstances forged by this variation of a rapidly changing British society neither experienced in their own lifetimes.

We already got a version this idea with the comic Calvin and Hobbes. We get the hijinks of a boy and his imaginary tiger friend, but the underlying comedy is exploring an interaction between the philosophies of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. The content is there if you know what to look for, and, if you’re from a cultural background where learning something about these two is required, you’ll pick up on the humor within the humor without needing it explained; even when you can’t articulate why.

Bungou Stray Dogs is like Calvin and Hobbes.

There are other Western versions of metafiction. An easy example to point to is Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Another is the show Penny Dreadful, which works off a similar concept with contemporary characters from the same time period as League. The Assassin’s Creed games are another example, they’re mashing a lot of contemporary historical figures together as touchstones for their narrative even if these individuals never actually interacted.

There’s a story, but that story is also built on the reader’s knowledge of these characters outside the fictional work itself. In a way, all fanfiction is metafiction. The major difference between one and the other is ultimately legality. The characters of metafiction are public domain, copyright does not apply, and so you can do what you like with them. You want to write a massive fanfic crossing over the works of Austen, Gaskell, and Bronte? In a coffee shop or high school setting? Go right ahead. You can do that legally. Be interesting enough and you could even get it published by a traditional publisher. After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did get published.

So, you writing fanfiction about Bungou Stray Dogs which is itself a massive crossover alternate AU fanfic about classic Japanese literature is extremely meta in its own right. Congrats!

Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the characters of Bungou Stray Dogs have personalities and powers based on the literary figures they’re associated with. If you want to make these characters useful to the criminal organization then you need to do your reading. They’re not just random characters in an anime, they’re based on a real author, probably an author who died young, and their famous protagonist. You should look at this crime boss and figure out which literary figure he’s based off of, the focus of the author’s narrative fiction, and accept that Japan has a tendency to throw around synonymous non-Japanese words willy-nilly. When calling an organization the mafia, they’re not really talking about the mafia within conventional Western understanding. This character is a very specific reference to a very specific individual and their works.

The trouble with metafiction is that it requires you do the reading, and in this case do the reading on other authors and their works you may not have ever heard of or realized were a primary influence and major reference on the material you’ve been watching/reading. However, to find the actual answer to your question, you’ve got to take a look at their works. Realize, these works may not be readily available or easily understood if you don’t read Japanese. Though the works of the authors referenced by the American association “The Guild” will be easy enough to get hold of, though thoroughly more confusing if you know anything about the authors Kafka Asagiri is referencing.  (From an American perspective, just looking at the versions appearing in this anime, I can say that I don’t know what the heck they read but that’s the key difference between looking at someone else’s literary culture versus your own.)

I mean, let’s be honest, Mark Twain’s power should be his ability to completely destroy your self-esteem. This requires a contextual understanding of Twain’s humor which may not be easily accessible via translation; especially if you only read a poor translation of Huckleberry Finn in high school. This is, after all, the man who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And, if you’re writing metafiction, or just fiction, or even fanfiction in general, he’s got some great advice, “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

But, I digress. When writing metafiction, or any fiction, or just in general, it helps when you know what you’re talking about. Or, have the confidence and showmanship to convince people you do.

One of the great aspects writing fanfiction has to teach you is how to do your research. As a writer, you’re stepping into someone else’s shoes and learning to think from their perspective. You create a facsimile even though your creations will never truly match. You can’t be someone else, but you can try out their style and see if their work works for you. You have the opportunity to step back from a work and ask what this means to you as you put your own personal spin on it. You might even find yourself depending on how easily you wind up coloring outside the lines.

You should ask yourself, does canon matter to you? 

Canon doesn’t have to, sometimes fanfiction is simply a launchpad to doing your own work when you’re still trying to build up strength in your wings and aren’t ready to leave the nest.

Does realism matter to you?

Again, “realism” doesn’t have to matter. Realism is defined entirely by the narrative your working with. You make reality. Your research into criminal organizations is to discover how they work and how they think. Learn the rules so you can break them.  Learn the facts so you can distort them. You want to know how the world works and how people think the world works so you can change those rules, or realize the rules you thought were important don’t matter at all.

Reality is stranger than fiction.

Learn to act without waiting for permission.

For that reason, we work on giving you options and helping you understand how the world works. This may not have any bearing on the story you wanted to tell, but we can’t tell your story for you. A big step on the road to writing is learning to write for all the characters in your narrative and not just your protagonists. Learn to think like a crime boss or a villain, give them motivations and logical reasoning behind their actions as they weigh their decisions.

Crime is entirely based on risk versus reward. Does the opportunity for reward outweigh the risks involved? Is your desire to use these characters and create exciting plots for them overshadowing the decision of this other character? Can you internally justify the choice beyond just the fact these characters have supernatural powers?

Your characters making choices is what takes them from the realm of dolls and transforms them into people.

-Michi

(PS. I give a gold star to whomever reading this got that joke about Orson Welles.)

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