An increasing number of books nowadays have different levels of reality, as it were, with characters on one level being creations of characters on another. Good examples of this are Sofies verden and Redshirts.

What is the term for this? I know it has something to do with postmodernism and metafiction, but both are much more general in scope.

1 Answer 1


Hmm, this is a couple of things. The term you probably want is ontological metalepsis, which in narratology refers to these 'layers' intruding on one another - but that also includes a detached narrator altering events (think The Princess Bride).

More generally, this is a kind of 'frame story' or mise en abyme (except tied way more to its embedded narrative, to the point that they blur together - which is metaphysical and metafictional). One of the earliest examples is the tale of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, and if there's a difference, it's in the ontological boundaries of the text, hence its association with postmodernism.

I've occasionally seen the term 'ontolepsis' used to talk about ontological violations generally (metalepsis would be a form of it), and it seems to originate here, where it was mainly used to discuss hypertext fiction in the 00s http://users.jyu.fi/~koskimaa/thesis/chapter4.htm.

There's a real intersection that you've identified philosophically, which is one reason it's more common these days across genres, but I'm not sure about a better name for the technique even located within the concepts of epistemology/ontology (philosophy), metafiction (genre), and the levels of diegesis (narratology, adapted from Aristotle and Plato). Almost all works of speculative fiction have altered metaphysics; how relevant that is has to do with how the metaphysics are engaged.

Treating your narrative's reality ambiguously is a product of postmodern thought typically - but can also oppose it - what is postmodern is embracing the ambiguity (the degree of relativism). Dreaming, writing a book, projecting a tulpa, authoring a simulation, roleplaying, godhood (demiurge-style), and experiencing you as part of my solipsistic reality can all be argued to be forms of experiencing creation, after all. So, we're inherently dealing with metafictional themes, or it wouldn't matter whether the characters were fictional/created, as opposed to any other kind of subjectivity.

Works that embrace an epistemological truth (or reject the relativist approach) will not treat fiction as equivalent to reality, even if the characters experience it as such; it might simply be surreal, fantastical, or allegorical. And any work with blurry ontology will probably be all of these.

That's my take on it, and below is a bunch of thinking out loud I did on specific examples of (mainly) books that are or are not this and why, which ended up a bit TVTropes-y, but sharing it anyway in case someone enjoys it.

  • Redshirts could be written explicitly as 'merely' (sur)real, as happening in an alternate fantasy universe with different laws, or about psychosis. Instead, the characters embrace a theory of reality that is fundamentally metafictional. It's the book's treatment of fiction as a literal layer of reality (which leads to violations of in-universe fourth walls and a preoccupation with art) that makes the doubles an example of this unnamed trope, rather than imaginary friends, unreliable narration, or virtual reality. (See also: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead)

  • Sophie's World is even more recursive. I think recursion is pretty key to separating this nestedness from less metafictional/philosophical equivalents, because recursion is the result of possibility. You can interpret the ending as the final conclusion if you like (maybe you think philosophy is starting anew and Sophie is regaining influence over reality, maybe you think Hilde's willingness to consider interpretations allows Sophie to interact with her - or maybe you think the ending with the most evidence is one where Sophie isn't real).

  • Lots of sci-fi deals with existence in a simulation - maybe an advanced computer, maybe someone's consciousness. The Matrix, Inception, Sophie's World, Neuromancer, and many of Robert A. Heinlein's works deal with Platonic realism (think Plato's cave), but they're not alike.

    • Heinlein was preoccupied with the same topics as relativists, but rejected their view on reality outright. This approach IMO radically relates to how he treated hard science fiction.
    • Neuromancer is more about virtual reality and AI (identity as existence, perceptual validity and existentialism) - its metaphysics only briefly concern ontology. There isn't actually that big a plot/tonal/thematic difference between it and the other science fiction works.
      • A lot of works use similar beats to induce existential/cosmic horror (being on the lower layer of reality is dangerous and incomprehensible) or even just suspense (the mystery - e.g. whether the main character is delusional - has an answer, which is yet to be revealed and set existence back in order - even if the answer is that it's unknowable and therefore we should go about our business like the Inception guy, or to depart Plato's cave like Neo).
  • C.S. Lewis's Narnia is some sort of parallel universe as religious allegory, but despite the fact its creator manifests in the text, reality is unclear. The Chronicles of Narnia holds an epistemological mystery (a theological one) and thus Narnia's structure has metaphysical ambiguity, but relativism is overtly rejected as an approach to deciphering it.

    • Neverland (Peter Pan) and Wonderland are similar realms, but in practice they are described as surreal locations with ambiguous spacetime relationships to Earth, rather than cosmic mysteries. They're fairytales and metaphors. The Neverending Story is a modern, metafictional take on these surreal plots and psychoanalytical themes, with very different levels of diegesis.
      • Extradiegesis ('it was all just a story/dream', the parts of the story external to the narrative) is almost purely allusionary in Peter Pan and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But in Peter Pan, the extradiegesis mirrors the diegesis for huge thematic reasons (Wendy has to grow up, Wendy is being told a story about the value of growing up). On the other hand, in the surreal Alice, the fact that Wonderland was her dream (or a story told to her) is way subtler, more thematic with regard to imagination.
      • In The Neverending Story, we're still dealing with psychological experience and identity, but the fictional parts and real parts are largely integrated diegetically, except towards the resolution - the distinction between fantasy and reality is critical, even though it accepts that they shape each other (which is where the more metafictional commentary aspects of the story come in). So the metadiegesis crosses into the diagesis there, but the distinction is upheld pretty well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.