On meaning in fiction

Who creates the meaning of a piece of fiction? The writer? The reader? Both? It’s a question I put to my poetry students all the time. This is a nice little reflection on the things at play here by a young writer figuring things out (I hope she has better luck that I have in this endeavour). Maybe too simple for some of you, but good for your students?

Barthes’s question seemed like a revelation to me. As a reader and as a writer, I constantly ask myself, “Who is speaking like this?” Among some writers and critics, first-person fictional narrators have become less popular lately. I understand the limits of this point of view, but its apparent drop in popularity doesn’t faze me. So far, all three of my published stories have had first-person protagonists as narrators. A completely objective, all-knowing narrator would be impossible, which is why I find omniscient third the hardest to write.

… my creative writing and English professor in college, helped me refine my fiction and critical writing. I wrote stories in his creative writing classes that were published years later. He asked me, about the villain of my best story, “Why do we hate him already?” It was a perceptive question that improved my story considerably. I was viewing the villain from my own perspective as the author, not as my protagonist would have seen him so early in the narrative. So, even when I tried to write fiction in first person, some of my own opinions would still come through.

When I can’t get into a book I’m reading, I often experience a similar dilemma. The narrator might know way too much or too little. Either can make a story confusing or unconvincing. I sometimes struggle to connect with a book because, like Barthes, I can’t pinpoint who the narrator is or why they’re telling this story. Characters’ inner monologues and telling stories to other characters are two devices that have been used countless times, but they can still be original.

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