English in Australia

English in Australia 1 - 50 1965-1979

Touching (on) Character: New Engagements in New Media Narratives

by Dr Wendy Morgan, Cultural and Language Studies in Education, Queensland University of Technology

In this paper I argue that the form or design of interactive hypertexts, multimedia narrative experiments and other forms of interactive fiction involves readers in ‘performing' or enacting the text – and in exercising particular forms of agency. These new media texts make possible new ways of representing and engaging with character. They challenge us as teachers to think and feel differently about how fictional characters can touch us.

A limit case?

Let's start with a multimedia text that seems to be very remote from the kinds of texts we associate with character and narrative. This is an interactive narrative called Juvenate (Glaser, Hutchison & Xavier 2001). We are told on the CD-ROM disc that ‘every day your presence wears grooves into someone's heart. Death turns these into memory-beds where love and sorrow collect and comfort one another.' And the first screen of Juvenate after the title reads: ‘Illness removes us from the everyday. Priorities change and perceptions alter. Memory, dreams and reality fold into one another. Juvenate offers you a journey through this experience, picking up the stitches of one life via the emotional ligature of its captive moments.' Any cover or introduction points readers in a certain direction, and this is no exception. This text isn't exactly a story or a game. It presents a randomly linked collage of photographic visuals of domestic scenes and glimpses of a man, a boy and a woman – feet in the shower, the child's face reflected in a metal bowl, a woman's hand stroking the forehead of a man lying on a bed, and so on. As you mouse over the screen you activate sound effects (laughter, the tinkling of a music box, the squeaking of a swing, the rattling of pills in a bottle, etc.) and animations (the Hills hoist spins and flaps with the breeze, the pages of a book turn in the breeze from an open window, the hand shakes the pill-bottle …). When I first moused over the screens I couldn't help piecing together an (admittedly shadowy) character and the outline of a story from those meagre fragments, tracing – or imagining – some of the salient outlines of a life through illness and remembered or dreamed incidents. And I don't think I'd be alone in doing this. Even in this case, which doesn't seem to offer us the basic components of a character (we can't put a name to any of the figures, and there's no ‘plot' as such, unless life giving way to death is a plot) – even here we can't seem to help reading character in, or into, the text. It seems a ‘natural' thing to do, and indeed it's a human thing to do – but it's also a practice we've learned.

Getting engaged: performing the text

I am assuming that it is almost impossible to separate our responses out from the texts that evoke them. In this paper, I want to look at the forms of new media texts that offer us stories and characters – hypertexts, interactive fictions, multimedia games – and I want to see how those forms involve us in enacting a performance and exercising agency. 1 All the texts I will be discussing entail some form of interactivity. (By this I mean that there is a feedback loop between the user and the text-machine: the ‘user' has some influence on the ‘machine' and the machine has some influence on the user.)

Years ago Kenneth Burke (1966) made the point that in fictions ‘form is the structuring of desire'. That is, the plot and textual strategies like focalisation, flashbacks, descriptive details and so on shape and give shape to our interest, sympathy, hopes and expectations for characters. The text's design and strategies prompt us to produce – enact or perform – it, make it ‘come alive' for ourselves, in ways that can't be entirely determined by the text. This is one form our agency takes. But it's rather different in new media texts, which have new resources for inciting us to perform a reading of a text and its characters – and to exercise agency in new ways.


My first text is the now-classic literary hypertext, Michael Joyce's afternoon (1990). In the opening screen (or node), I'm told of a man and woman talking in a wintry car-park. The narrator then steps out of the frame of the narrative to ask me directly, ‘Do you want to hear about it?' If I type ‘Yes', and then press the return key each time I want to move on from the present node, I'm taken through a series of nodes. These involve conversation between the narrator and someone called Wert, who seems to be his boss. They're talking about the boss's wife, Lolly, and her client, Nausicaa. But if I type ‘No', the narrator agrees with me, saying ‘I understand how you feel. Nothing is more empty than heat …' The next node says, ‘I rather enjoy the blankness … Nothing touches me. I know why you would not want to know.' And he goes on in this vein for series of nodes. But if you click on one of the words in that first screen, ‘words that yield' to your cursor, you're taken to this: ‘I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning.' What's going on here? How are Wert and Lolly and Nausicaa connected with this story about the son the narrator wants to tell, and with this tangential conversation about the advantages of not knowing?

I cannot begin to give an accurate, complete summary of this story, because it changes with each reading. Which segment of the text you arrive at next will depend on the choices you make and the links you therefore follow (whether you click on this word or that, or whether you press the enter key). There are a myriad possible pathways through the text, and you won't get the ‘full' story with each one. But something interesting happens if you follow the default path by pressing the return key at each screen. From the ‘yes' choice, and from the words-that-yield choice, you arrive at a node where this electronic ‘page turning' won't let you go any further. Along this pathway we discover that the narrator fears he may have seen the bodies of his ex-wife, Lisa, and his son Andy lying by the roadside as he drives to work. It was just a glimpse, so he can't be sure. But when he begins an increasingly frantic hunt for their whereabouts, they can't be found where they'd normally be at that time of the morning. He returns to the accident scene, finds a scrap of paper with handwriting he recognises as his son's. He tries to find information about hospital patients via a Datacom system, but reaches a dead-end. Instead of phoning round the hospitals directly, at this point, the narrator confesses, ‘I do not call the hospital. I take a pill and call Lolly.' And this is where the default path stalls. Incidentally, if you choose ‘no', then follow the default path, you're taken along a complicated path in which the narrator gives you some details about an accident, then veers away and returns to the scene of the crash. You finally arrive at a dead-end which is rather different (and can change with each reading) – but again, it seems that the narrative thread is broken, or at least its ongoing momentum is abruptly halted. You can proceed, but only through making a choice of a word and clicking on that. It seems we have reached a point of breakdown – in the narrative, perhaps in the narrator.

This brings us back to character. My point is that the structuring of the hypertext contributes to Peter's characterisation. From the way the nodes are linked, often by indirections, as well as from his (in)actions and words, it seems the narrator is reluctant to get on with telling his story. At the same time, he ‘wants to say'. It's as if we need to coax Peter into sharing his story by repeatedly clicking the mouse or pressing the enter key. My initial experience of reading this hypertext – and it's shared by my students, year after year – is of confusion, of wandering from one fragment to another. I drift from snatches of conversation Peter takes part in, to his actions of the moment, to his disjointed thoughts and memories. It has sometimes been suggested that the reader's perplexed wandering through this maze of fragments, set up by the structuring of nodes and links, is intended to enact Peter's mental state. (Certainly, as we know, traumatic events disrupt people's capacity to comprehend them or shape them into a coherent story at the time of those events. Later, the event begins to surface in bits and pieces: some aspects are repeatedly relived in memory while others leave only blank holes.)

So, when I interact with the text, choosing to press this word or that, my confused wandering mimics the fragmented sense of self of a traumatised character who is in denial. I know what it feels like. I am not suggesting that I necessarily experience Peter's mental state directly. Still, the first-person narration makes me identify pretty closely with him even as I know I'm the one to whom he's trying (or trying not to) tell his story. My often frustrated desire to know if Peter did indeed see his son die this morning – my desire is that of a listener who wants him to tell what he can't or won't (until… but I won't ruin the suspense and the satisfaction for you when you finally arrive at a deeply buried node). Still, if you like, I experience something of his indirections through my interactions with the text – and therefore I come to understand how impossible it is for him to get to the point and find out what he most fears.

A hypertext fiction like this can give writers a significantly new strategy for conveying character. And it can give readers a newly interactive way of becoming engaged with character, of knowing and feeling with the character through their acts of mouse-clicking. And so you might say we enact the character, and get him to perform, according to the sometimes contradictory shaping of our (and the character's) desires.


A rather different form of text-machine is what is known as interactive fiction. The example I will be discussing, Varicella , by Adam Cadre, is both a story and a game. These two genres come together to make a most intriguing hybrid text-type. This new literary phenomenon calls for a new kind of reader, engaging with characters in a new way – and therefore getting new kinds of pleasures.

When you play this fiction, you type in commands ( go …, look …, open …, ask …, undo …, and so on) to your player-character, Primo Varicella, who focalises the story. (Unlike a lot of narrative computer games, you don't get to choose the appearance, personality, skills, role and name of an avatar.) The program replies to each command by telling you about what your character does within the world of the palace and what happens as a result. For example, at the outset, you are (that is, Primo is) in the salon, with a steward ‘hired to attend to your grooming needs'. When you read, ‘The steward shapes the final nail with a pair of scissors', if you give the command to go out of the salon, the program responds with ‘“Er, sir, the manicure isn't quite fin – well, I suppose it is now,” the stewards says as you leave.'

The situation of the fiction is this. Primo is the palace minister of a tiny European principality in the Carolingian League called Piedmonte. The king has just died and only you know at this stage. The heir, Prince Charles, is a mere five years old, and you have an opportunity to bump off your rivals for the position of regent. But as you're told at the outset, ‘Your fellow ministers will no doubt try all sorts of unseemly tactics in their quest for the throne. Some will try bribery. Others will employ treachery. A few may even resort to brute force. But would Primo Varicella stoop to using one of these methods? Perish the thought! You're better than that. You shall employ all three.' And so you're given your task in the game. To win you have to learn to make your way around the palace, remember potentially useful features of its rooms, learn the strengths and weaknesses of your rivals, and then play them against each other in an efficient way. (The rival ministers are marvellous caricatures, by the way, from the brutal stormtrooper-type War Minister, Wehrkeit, to the obese Church Minister, Bonfleche, who sexually assaults the young prince each night, to the Interior Minister, a Frankenstein-like Variola Modo.)

I don't want to spend time on the character of Primo here – even though he is an interestingly unlikeable character – vain, prissy, asexual – and of course, he is indispensable to the unfolding and conclusion of the narrative (whether he meets a nasty death, or …). Instead, I want to focus on a character called Princess Charlotte. 2 Charlotte was betrothed to Primo's younger brother, Terzio. But as they exchanged vows at their wedding, ‘a pair of assassins shot Terzio dead, splashing the young princess's wedding dress with the blood of her almost-husband. She let out a great wail as the assassins fled, and her keening continued unabated for close on an hour; finally she was sedated, placed in a straitjacket, and taken to the tower. That was more than four years ago. She's still here.' She's mad – as mad as Hamlet is (that is, maybe only pretending to be mad); or perhaps she is actually deranged, as Ophelia is. If you reach her tower asylum, she'll greet you thus: ‘Hello, Varicella. Face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot!' (This could be her hint that she'll be essential to you in your quest.) Untie her from her bonds, and she'll accompany you, keeping up a string of often wacky, witty comments, jokes and puns. At one point for example, ‘Her gaze alights on the tea service. “Hey, tea!” she says. She blinks. “That gives me an idea – let's go to Haiti!”' If you make a wrong move, and try to walk through a wall (having forgotten it's there, Charlotte may remark, ‘When I do that they make me take a tranquilliser.' She also makes intertextual references – and there's often method in her madness. ‘Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?' she muses at one point, quoting Ophelia. (Where is the king, indeed? Or the queen? What are they up to?)

Charlotte is also a postmodern character, who comments on the text – in this case, the game-program. Primo has three conversational modes you can choose: hostile, servile or cordial. If you ask Charlotte about the king's mistress, Miss Sierra, this is her reply: ‘She's mean, mean, mean, mean. The whole time I was getting ready for my wedding she called me the worst names I've ever heard. She makes your hostile mode sound like servile, let me tell you!'

But Charlotte isn't just a ‘character' in the sense we are used to from books. What she does and says as she accompanies you directs your attention to certain features that are important to the game. Go into the Throne Room and Charlotte picks up the phone. ‘”Hi Jenny,” she says. “Guess what? Susie says that Bobby told her that Timmy likes you! As in likes you likes you! Couldn't you just die?” She stares at the receiver for a moment and places it back in the cradle. “She hung up,' she says, puzzled.' This phone (it's a video phone) is essential to winning the game – you need to use it to see what your rivals are up to. And what Charlotte does with it is also a crucial clue: just as she gossips, so must you if you're to play your opponents against each other and get one to eliminate another. Indeed, the princess is herself necessary to your winning: you have to use her as a murder weapon.

Within this interactive fictional world we reader-players relate to Charlotte in two overlapping ways. As we have seen, while we play this maze-game, we are busy working out our strategies. And Charlotte is essential to these strategies as informant and helper. So as we get immersed in the game world we necessarily become engaged with her in this way. But there is more: this is not only an interactive game but also a fiction – a tragedy of revenge, as it turns out – whose settings, characters and interactions are richly depicted. And so we make sense of Charlotte's words and actions in the same way we have learned to do with books – making a coherent character come to life in our minds, enjoying the surprises she brings, ‘reading' her according to a long literary tradition of madwomen (in palaces or attics) – and reading the intertextual references in her talk. Interpreting (which is how we perform in the fictional mode) and playing (how we perform in the interactive mode) are indissolubly intertwined in Varicella . (Remember the method in Charlotte's madness.) Both aspects are necessary to our double engagement with the character. This doubleness makes it unlike anything we get from books.

Thus the very form of this text-machine involves us in performing the text and exercising two forms of agency, interpreting and playing. Varicella shapes our desires by giving us a character, Primo, who acts within the fiction according to our instructions, in order to win the game and conclude the plot successfully. And our pleasures in character are redoubled, as we engage with Charlotte as readers and players.

Ceremony of Innocence

Such characters as Charlotte and Primo are touching – they tickle our fancy. And when we touch mouse and keyboard, in a kind of way we're touching characters – making them move, as well as being moved – touched – by them. I want to turn now to another interactive fiction and look briefly at a different way in which the text-machine can convey aspects of character. This fiction is Ceremony of Innocence (Mayhew & Villon 1997), an interactive multimedia version of the Griffin and Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock (1991–3). (The books too are marvellously multimodal, involving splendid art works on postcards and in letters sent between the two characters, who are in different parts of the world – or perhaps in different worlds.) Letters are an interesting (and early) way of telling a fictional story. For one thing, the traces of the writers (the characters) are there in the text – quite literally, in this case, with the fluid, relaxed handwriting of Sabine and the spiky, upright – and uptight – character of Griffin's words. 3 Letters also quite literally put us readers in the very privileged position of the recipient. In this case, we feel imaginatively that we are handling the very missives as they were sent and opened. (Indeed, the story itself is about how we can construct a ‘real' person in imagination – who thereby becomes real to us.) 4 And out of these fragments of text (the words and the pictures with their motifs and icons) we too create a richly textured pair of characters.

The interactive CD-ROM version also requires us to scrutinise the visual texts closely, for a particular reason. We have to be attentive if we are to ‘perform' the text – because each card or letter picture contains a puzzle that we have to solve before we get the payoff: a short animated set-piece followed by an actor's voice reading the letter on the reverse side. You have to tease a lizard on a rock with a butterfly to make him disappear into a hole in the card; you have to release a moving bulge inside a man's head – it explodes from his skull as a wild-eyed animal … And so on.

There is a lot I'd like to say about this complex text – not least, about the wit and beauty of its visuals and the way we interpret character through them. But here I will focus on the way that the machine-text enhances our response to those characters – a way that's rather different from the examples I've been discussing so far. 5 This has to do with the appearance and functioning of the cursor.

Most of us have become so used to moving or clicking the computer mouse with our hand and seeing it simultaneously on screen as the blinking cursor– or the arrow or pointing hand, depending on its function – that we no longer think about it. Our hand outside the computer becomes the cursor inside it: we become part of the text-machine – or it becomes a part of us. So we tend to concentrate our attention on the cursor as we mouse over the screen. In interactive multimedia texts the cursor becomes our agent, carrying out our intentions, performing our will. But two odd things happen to the cursor in Ceremony of Innocence . One is that in a number of the card-puzzles the look of the cursor changes. In one of Sabine's cards, for instance, that butterfly I mentioned earlier is the form the cursor takes. In one of Griffin's cards, it becomes a sinister Pierrot figure that you can make advance along a ledge and climb a series of rocky columns, to pirouette – until the point where he bursts into flame.

Look closely at the cursor in each of those puzzles, and a pattern begins to emerge, which distinguishes one character from the other. According to one analyst (Bizzocchi 2003), the look of Sabine's cursors conveys flight, ethereality, exotic attraction. By contrast, Griffin's cursor-icons represent him as being more ordinary: limited, mechanical, associated with the sadness of death. That is, the visual appearance of the cursors becomes a means through which we interpret characters.

Something different happens to the cursor in various card-puzzles. Its functioning changes, rather than just its look. Sometimes the cursor doesn't seem to work – at least, not as we think it should. A surging wave tosses the cursor to the bottom of the screen – even though our hand hasn't dragged it down. Or the queen's head on a postage stamp blows the cursor so that it tumbles down a steep sand dune. In the same card, the cursor gets swatted away if it comes too close to the spinning propeller of a dirigible. Elsewhere, the cursor doesn't follow the directions of our hand. While you can make the angel-form of the cursor face left by rolling the mouse to the left, when you roll the mouse up the cursor only turns the figure to the right. These changes in the functioning of the cursor convey to us directly, physically, the struggles and frustrations of Sabine and Griffin as they try to understand and make their way through a world where things aren't always as they seem. According to Bizzocchi (2003), the two characters are differentiated according to the way their cursors work (or don't). Sabine's cursor, like herself, is more free – more able to range. Griffin's cursors are markedly more restricted in their movement – and this is in keeping with his uptight personality, as conveyed through his words. And because of the cursor mis-functioning we feel more frustration in relation to his cards.

Our actions with the cursor do various things, then, as we engage with this text. They not only enable us to exercise agency by making the text-machine work to advance the storyline. (This is one way in which we ‘perform' the text.) But by its appearance and functioning the cursor also enables us to know the characters in immediate, embodied and iconic ways. As game-players and fiction-readers we come together with the characters at the very point of the screen where the cursor is. It enhances our enjoyment of not only the game but also the characters as they're produced by these means.


One last example offers a differently radical way of our assembling a character in our minds and on the ‘page'. This is Stuart Moulthrop's Pax (2003), which he calls a ‘textual instrument' for readers to play. (See also Wardrip-Fruin 2003) The situation of the text involves the airport at Dallas, Texas, when the terminal is suddenly closed because of a terrorist scare. Launch Pax and the screen divides into two parts. To the left you'll see a series of animated characters who drift up the screen. As you move your cursor towards any one of them, they become more sharply defined. Click on that character to stop his or her drift, to bring up an image of the face, to open and move his or her eyes. When you engage with a character in these ways, words appear on the right hand part of the screen. When the character is ‘asleep' the text is grey and represents a kind of subconscious ‘verbal buzz' (according to the instructions). When the character is awake, a black text appears, conveying the character's conscious thoughts and feelings. As a player-reader, you can engage characters at random or try to pursue just one through the various phases or thematic movements of the play: ‘Shaken out of time', ‘American flyers', ‘Home land', ‘Evil ones', ‘Falling', and ‘Total information'. Or you can engage two or three characters and see what ‘conversations' they create.

Together, you and the characters create the text during any one performance. It's rather different from a hypertext, in which one segment of text is replaced by the next, and you are taken elsewhere when you click on a link. Think of afternoon with its disjunctions, its broken threads and cul de sacs. When you play Pax , by contrast, when you literally manipulate the characters with your hand and mouse, you and they weave a text together from their words – a text that's new each time you play/read. The characters cooperate with you to create these conjoined responses to that crisis situation. There is a community of kinds being built here; some conversational exchanges sidle up to others, even if other segments slide past or spin off from others. You play the instrument, like a guitar, you weave together the melodies, but the notes (their tones, their quality) are created by the ‘strings' of the characters. It's an intriguing new form of textual collaboration – and one that may seem particularly appropriate for these times.

Touching (on) character

Reading is always an act of embodied imagination. We forget that when we envisage reading as an exclusively mental activity. Characters touch (or affect) us viscerally, and not only when our hearts are racing and our stomachs are churning for the hero in a tight spot in an action movie. Rather, our responses to any characters in any situations are begotten and expressed in our bodies, since these include our brains, the central processing unit of our feelings as well as our thinking (both are involved if we are to carry out either thinking or feeling successfully). When reading a fiction we rehearse in our minds the moves that muscles, nerves and tendons make if we are to act within and on a world. And when we follow the line of vision that's offered by focalisation, we are situated within a perspective, an angle of vision that depends on the position of our embodied eyes.

But now reading can involve newly embodied practices. I hope I've demonstrated through these few examples some of the ways in which the forms of new media texts implicate us as readers, viewers, hearers and players to perform the text and its characters – and to exercise certain forms of agency, according to the shapes (and the shaping) of our desires. As English teachers, curious about all kinds of fictional texts, we'll surely want to understand the new ways in which we can ‘touch' characters, and how characters can touch us. We'll want to know the different pleasures they offer, and know the means by which they've been made in us. And we'll want to explore with our students how such electronic text-machines offer intriguing new resources for representing and engaging with character.


  1. Murray (1997) defines agency as ‘the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices' (p. 126), and differentiates it from mere activity.
  2. This discussion owes a great deal to Montfort and Moulthrop (2003). Available online from http://adamcadre.ac.
  3. This is the interpretation provided by Bantock (2000), p. 58. When Griffin and Sabine come together in later volumes, their handwriting takes on the characteristics of both and becomes identical from each character's hand.
  4. ‘Griffin's need to construct Sabine within himself is echoed by the reality of Sabine's appearance in his life. So the answer to the question, “Is Sabine real or a figment of Griffin's imagination?” is yes! Yes, she exists because he needs her to. This also applies the other way round. He is only real because she has constructed him.' (Bantock 2000, p. 62.)
  5. The following discussion of Ceremony of Innocence owes much to Bizzocchi (2003).


Bantock, N. (2000) The Artful Dodger , San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Bantock, N. (1991) Griffin and Sabine , San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Bantock, N. (1992) Sabine's Notebook , San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Bantock, N. (1993) The Golden Mean , San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Bizzocchi, J. (2003) Ceremony of Innocence and the Subversion of Interface: Cursor Transformation as a Narrative Device. Paper presented at Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Melbourne.

Burke, K. (1966) Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cadre, A. Varicella . Available online at http://adamcadre.ac.

Glaser, M., Hutchison, A. & Xavier, M. (2001) Juvenate . Interactive CD-ROM disc, Perth, WA: Curtin University with ArtsWA and Australian Film Commission. http://multimedia.design.curtin.edu.au/juvenate.htm


Joyce, M. (1990) afternoon, a story [computer software], Cambridge MA: Eastgate Software.

Mayhew, A., & Villon, G. (1997) Ceremony of Innocence , CD-ROM, Wiltshire, UK: Real World Multimedia.

Montfort, N. & Moulthrop, S. (2003) Face It, Tiger, You Just Hit the Jackpot: Reading and Playing Cadre's Varicella. Streamingworlds. Melbourne: Digital Arts and Culture Conference Proceedings.

Moulthrop, S. (2003) Pax . http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/tirweb/feature/

Murray, J. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace .

Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2003) An Interview with Stuart Moulthrop . http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/tirweb/feature/moulthrop/interview.html

Walker, J. (1999) Piecing Together and Tearing Apart: Finding the Story in afternoon. Proceedings of Hypertext '99. Darmstadt: ACM Press.

Yellowlees Douglas, J. (2000) The End of Books – or Books without End? Reading Interactive Narratives , Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.