5 Metafictional Stories with Heart

Tyler Hayes’s The Imaginary Corpse is one of the year’s most unexpected, unusual fantasy novels: ostensibly a silly noir adventure about a tiny, plush dinosaur detective solving a string of murders in a world that exists as a sort of afterlife for ideas—including discarded imaginary friends like Tippy the Triceratops—it’s also much more: a metafictional romp that also serves as a moving exploration of the lasting impact of grief and trauma. 

Today, Hayes joins us to discuss more metafictional stories that don’t lose the heart amid all the intertextual noodling…

There’s a lot to love about meta fiction: stories about stories, told with a wink and a nod as they lampshade conventions, subvert expectations, and generally play in the sandbox built by stories that came before. A little meta sprinkled into an otherwise grounded narrative can lighten things up (Luke Cage S1E4 “Step in the Arena”) or otherwise churn up emotion (Funny Games).

Meta stories tend to be farcical, which is understandable. But there’s a much wider variety of options out there. Here are five works, from novels to film, that take a meta-fictional concept and invest it with humanity and heart.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

The Pitch: The Eyre Affair is the first of Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, the story of how the titular Thursday, a Literary Detective in an alternate-history England, ends up working as a detective inside the fictional worlds of books.

The Meta: The Thursday Next books are redolent with meta, and The Eyre Affair is where it all starts. From the narrative matryoshka doll of a fictional setting in which there is a hidden otherworld where all fictional characters are actual people, to a plot centered around the kidnapping of – you guessed it – the fictional character Jane Eyre from within the manuscript itself, The Eyre Affair is a gorgeous bit of literary fun.

The Heart: Fforde could easily have written absurdity for its own sake, but instead he took the concept all the way to its logical, heartfelt conclusion. The love of books drips from every non-antagonist character’s personality, and the fictional characters of the book world are written with such sympathy for their situation that it ends up being a major turning point of the (meta)narrative.

Soul Music, Sir Terry Pratchett

The Pitch: We’re back on the Discworld, Pratchett’s preferred platform for his humorous humanism. This time, the people of the Disc are discovering a new genre of music, Music With Rocks In, and all the narrative trappings that come with it, forcing the Disc to contend with celebrities and fans, tours and managers, the difficulty of obtaining leopard-print pants in a medieval-esque fantasy setting…and rock stars dying far, far too young.

The Meta: It’s almost easier to discuss the things about Soul Music that aren’t meta. Music with Rocks In is a character unto itself, an invasive narrative species trying to stretch and flex into a shape the Discworld can contend with so it can tell its own stories, no matter who it hurts. The book is saturated with smiling references to well-known bands and musicians (personal favorites are “The Surreptitious Fabric” and “We’re Certainly Dwarves”), and one of the subplots heavily references The Blues Brothers.

The Heart: Pratchett’s stock in trade was always his deep love of humanity, and Soul Music is one of the shining examples. Yes, it’s about rock music invading the Discworld, but really it’s about how art can take over an artist’s life, and how much happier an artist can be when they don’t let greatness come only on the back of tragedy. Anyone who’s ever chosen passion over compassion, or been a target of that choice, can see themselves in Pratchett’s funhouse mirror.

The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You, by Neil Gaiman, Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, and Stan Woch

The Pitch: The fifth volume of Gaiman’s world-rendingly popular The Sandman comic picks up threads left dangling in Volume 2, The Doll’s House. Barbie, one of Rose Walker’s housemates in Volume 2, is trying to get on with whatever ‘normal’ is for her, only to become re-entangled in her recurring dreams of the Land and Princess Barbara’s battle against the evil forces of the Cuckoo. She’ll have to confront the greater reality of that story, and the struggles of the other occupants of her apartment building, and what happens when these two layers of reality start to intersect.

The Meta: When it comes to meta commentary, A Game of You is a layer cake. It’s a story built out of other stories in The Sandman, going all the way back to the first volume. On a larger level, the story is itself about stories, the power they have over their consumers and their tellers. The series protagonist, Dream of the Endless, makes an appearance in several issues, but exists only as a deus ex machina. In fact, his last appearance deconstructs the significance of the rest of the volume…but, I don’t want to spoil it, even all these years later.

The Heart: Gaiman invests the characters, both dreamed and waking, with real personality and emotion, making the battle against the Cuckoo and the struggles of Barbie’s friends loom equally large. He also makes a noteworthy early effort to be sympathetic and human in his portrayal of LGBT+ characters (though the story of Wanda, a trans woman, hasn’t aged well as progress has marched on). This book made me feels things that still haunt me over a decade later.

The Unwritten, Mike Carey and Peter Gross

The Pitch: Tom Taylor is a young man whose missing father wrote a blockbuster series of fantasy novels, which just happened to star a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. This comic starts with Tom trying to escape his namesake’s legacy, and spirals rapidly into a story about the things people will do to control what stories get popular – both politically and magically.

The Meta: The Unwritten is built upon an absolute mountain of meta. The first volume begins with a series of panels that mimic the experience of reading a Tommy Taylor book, then starts talking about ‘literary geography’ (221B Baker Street, the Villa Deodati, and more obscure locations), then introduces a villain who can melt objects into puddles of words that describe said object. Then it gets really weird.

The Heart: Carey and Gross take this English major’s delight and pour in real, raw humanity, making us feel for Tom and loathe his antagonists, and leaving us buckling under the weight of our own stories. Heck, a side story will make you feel sympathy for Rudyard Kipling, and if that’s not a feat of literary greatness, I don’t know what is.

Stranger than Fiction, directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm

The Pitch: Stranger than Fiction is a movie about a man realizing he is the protagonist of a book. As he begins to explore what he initially believes to be a break in his aggressively constructed sanity, he realizes that the story is set to have a tragic ending…and he desperately wants to stop it.

The Meta: Harold Crick realizes his fictional status because he starts hearing the book’s narration in his own head. He also exists in the same world as that author, who is forced to confront the possibility that every character whose life she’s ruined was a real person, and what that means for the future of her writing. It gets a little weirder than that – literary analysis of Harold’s own life enters the picture at one point – but that’s the meat of it.

The Heart: This movie, especially with Will Ferrell in the spotlight, could have easily been a comedy, but that comedy contrasted with the pathos of Harold coming to grips with the knowledge a narrator is pulling his strings, and how he should cope with foreknowledge of his own death. It’s an incredibly sweet, incredibly kind movie, and one of my favorites since the first time I watched it.

What are your favorite examples of heartfelt metafiction?

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