Characters and Simulation

A brief idea about characters in Web-fiction

Here's an idea I had while procrastinating. Also, here's a picture of a grain of salt, between the brackets: [ ]. Please, lick the screen before reading.

There are different aspects to every narrative - political, economic, psychological visions expressed in the story. There are critical schools for each kind of vision; Marxists see things one way, Freudians another. Perhaps a new form of criticism (riffing off an idea in Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet Murray), would be the SimCity school of criticism.

SimCity is a game in which you manage and run a city; you can build skyscrapers and schools, cause disasters, incorporate public transit, and more. The game, which was very popular and spawned dozens of imitators, interpreted your digital mouse-click actions through a large, complex model of civic and economic behavior, and you achieved success (happy society, more "money," more "buildings") or failure (civic unrest, low tax yield) based on the virtual results of that interpretation.

Now, most interesting stories feature a large amount of interpersonal interaction - often expressed as dialogue and first-person monologues. Through prose we see personal forces and pressures in individual terms; if the author has done a good job, we empathize.

At the same time, novelists and, in general, storytellers, often have a larger motive - a desire to illustrate some grand set of social circumstances, “to cast light on the human condition” as they see it. They see patterns which they want to convey, organizing principles that can only be made manifest by stratifying experience into static, linear text, frozen language. Critics also see the novel and other narrative forms in this light - not simply as a story of personal interactions, but as a crystallized, observable cerebral space which can be taken apart to uncover assumptions, personal, political, psychological, economic, which may reveal something to us about our culture and our hopes.

Explicitly political narratives are often dry when taken out of their contexts - think of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie or Sinclair's The Jungle. They may still be important, but are likely not as timeless as books with great characters, like Conrad's Nostromo, or Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, even though that novel features a painstaking recreation of the economic complexities of British agrarian life, down to sheep diseases. Spike Lee's films, while provocative and fun, and with exceptions like Mo Better Blues, suffer from characters “representing” social forces - the white TV producer in Bamboozled, the activist, consciousness-raising purity of Laurence Fishburne's character in School Daze. Remembering these characters, I can't tell you much about them; their back-stories are barely offered. I remember what they represent, however.

One thing that Web narratives - assuming the Web ever gets a tradition of narrative unto its own - might allow us to do is split out a specific narrative functions across forms - that is, at one layer of the narrative a core of characters might interact in a fictional space, regularly updated, a bit like this Web site when I'm in a fictional mode. A bit of a soap opera, or a serial. This is something I'm working on now with the Paul Ford/Scott Rahin stories, but I haven't been able to put together enough pieces.

Fine - nothing new; people have been going on about Web narrative since 1994 - but the difference between the single long linear line of a novel and the Web is that we can have parallel lines; we can have layered narratives. Up a layer, we may see a map of the larger world in which our characters interact, a careful accounting of all their purchases, which can be tagged into the text, their bank accounts. This is our SimCity world, our SimCulture space. It both informs and is informed by the personal narrative; it can free the author but also show him or her the limits of their simulation, the boundaries of action for their characters.

I know I promised a SimCity school of criticism, but where I ended up is a SimCity school of narrative-building. But what I'm describing could be used, after the fact, for criticism. SimYoknapatawphaCounty, SimCasterbridge, SimDublin could all be created and explored based on the data and research around classic texts. But the same techniques could also be applied to episodic Web fiction - hence, I might move over to a kind of SimFtrain - which I would love to do if I had the wit, the tools, the time, the information, and the resources. Alack. (Not to mention experience and actually deserving to do it, which I don't, yet.)

At first it might be fun just to use the layer above to, say, keep track of transactions. Whenever a character buys something in the story, put in a tag - so Scott Rahin purchases 2 CDs for $27.45. We put the CDs - titles, etc - in some database, tagged as receipt.cds.393 and add a <act verb="buys" object="receipt.cds.393" character="rahin.scott" amount="27.45"/> tag. We have graphs, charts of purchases; people can browse the narrative along an axis of transactions. It's ironic, with pie charts, a new way into the narrative, a cold look at desires.

All of this extra information is invisible in the actual text. The text might say, “Scott Rahin bought some CDs at the hideous HMV music store at Herald Square, and went to the payphone to call Paul Ford. He couldn't reach Paul, so he took the Subway home.” CDs, phone call, subway - 3 transactions which could be embedded into the code. The amount, the information around these transactions is a secret to the reader of that layer of narrative, unless they are given the ability to choose to turn it on or otherwise illuminate such transactions.

But to the SimCulture layer such information is always available. Using embedded data, we might always be polling our episodic world, pulling out a state-of-the-narrative report in real-time. I could use this information to track general economic trends among the characters in fiction in Ftrain.com. Assuming a smart programmer and a lot of knowledge, I might entertainingly use microeconomic analysis and psychology associated with spending patterns to generate general statistical information about each character, little flashcards.

The programming could map the financial well-being of the characters at a given time against the national norms. A character might have a stock portfolio, which he tracks and to which he reacts. A Black or female character might, indeed, make less money for as much work as their White male counterparts.

That's the economic layer. I might also encode emotional states, or sexual connections, or geographic location, and have the machine analyze and seek patterns. I might chart mate-selection tendencies and musical preferences over time, and compare the two, given a few dozen slowly interacting characters all in search of mates - not an unlikely fictional possibility for a long serial written over the next few decades on the Web.

Ultimately, the machine might be able to analyze and predict certain behaviors for characters, or the characters of others. I might create, over time, a meta-fictional framework for exploring different ways of seeing the world. At the bottom level, I write stories, but one layer up, I think about how those stories reflect reality - creating statistical models of the text, pulling out dialogues from the characters - because their thoughts and speeches are tagged, testing them, finding new ways to see if they mirror the world, and letting the world inform the narrative, as well; letting them read the newspapers and make decisions based on the weather, putting them into the lives of the audience. A syndicated, complex stock-ticker of the world of the site might be syndicated to real fans.

I might let other characters in, other writers, or be let in to other people's similar spaces (and there should be some way of connecting all such spaces, of aggregating the data.)

People might share the worlds, as writers and readers, expanding the economic and cultural boundaries. New interactions might occur, created by a team of writers, as with TV. There's no money! Okay, for now. But a very interesting narrative with elements of a game, of interaction, where people could somehow get involved while watching the characters might have some commercial possibilities. Not today, not in the ugly text-and-JPEG Web, but perhaps in the future, within a decade. After all, we've had a boom and crash in 5 years. A decade may bring all manner of new possibilities.

This is a lot of fuss for something that people have done for thousands of years, which is to tell stories. Why isn't a pencil and a paper enough? It is. Fine things are often done with pencils and paper. But if writers and artists really are seeking to take over the world, and want to describe where we are accurately, there is no reason to be bound into the form dictated by technology 500 years ago in a single, arbitrarily long string of symbols and spaces which forms the book. There is no injury in snapping that string around, cutting and pasting it, flowing words onto a screen, if it leads us to smarter, more thoughtful writers and readers more likely to question assumptions, build models, and take things apart and put them together. All of this stuff is hard now but it need not be so hard in the future; certainly basic algebra was a devilish brute to learn in the 1200s, and now it's a requirement for most 13-year-olds.

A long and flowing narrative, an unbroken line of symbols, is a thing of beauty and will be forever. But we can bend things, layer them, play, search for balance - not to replace the book, but to take the language in new directions, in service of our goals (which I hope, naively, are to build a more fair and just society with less cruelty and more openness). Narrative plus interesting browsing tools plus connectivity can revamp the models of creativity enforced by the publishing model of today; it need not simply get rid of the middleman, but might also be used to bend the steady stream of signals we receive into new and interesting forms, to add color to the lights beamed into our eyes.

Narrative-building, at least for me, is a kind of game, the development of competing systems in the form of characters or forces, setting them against one another to see what happens, using what I find in my own life, applying it to work, talking to girls, making friends, making money. I am bored by chess and business, but this sort of stuff keeps me up at night, especially when I begin thinking about the different forms, from decision-trees to games to simulation engines to real working economic simulation software, that might be layered over a narrative, itself a simulation.

People I appear, unintentionally, to be ripping off
After I wrote the piece one level up, on SimCity and Narrative, I did some keyword searches on Google and found the following essays, which I will read when I have a bit of time, learning as I go how my ideas are unoriginal, lame, and long-ago-disproven. The fun of weak scholarship!
Sunday, July 1, 2001




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

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