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Social networks in fiction. Or, why don't characters email?
Richard Santos
Posted: Monday, July 18, 2011 9:07 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 3

I'm wondering how other authors are using Facebook, twitter, etc in their fiction. I don't mean some sort of cyber novel where an obsession with the internet is a plot, but I mean where the internet in a non-sci-fi element of character development.

It seems like it's rare to find a character who has a realized online life. Many characters don't even seem to have email in contemporary fiction.

Is there anyone out there who does a really good job of incorporating the reality of our internet lives in fiction?

I wonder if part of the reason we don't see a lot of twittering (for example) going on in literature is a fear that it will feel dated. For example, reading a book now where a character is on myspace constantly would feel a bit odd. But how do we get around this?

I'm asking because I think that the characters in my  novel would be active tweeters, facebookers, etc, but I'm having trouble depicting these interactions. 

Karrie Zai
Posted: Saturday, July 23, 2011 2:08 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 13

I don't write realistic fiction, but I just thought I'd mention how heavily email, texting, etc. factored into my students' fiction last year. One student actually went to great length to make her characters' emails and texts stand out, giving them borders and different fonts.

I found it very interesting, especially now that you mention how little they appear in published novels.
Atthys Gage
Posted: Friday, August 5, 2011 3:50 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

I, being old, had to force myself to try to remember that teenagers would certainly text in certain situations and write accordingly, but texting has never featured heavily in any on my books. I think it will become more and more common for tweeting and texting to simply be a part of the narratives of modern day life.

My daughter was very into a series of YA novels that were told entirely in texts, a modern on take on the epistolary novel. They all had acronymic titles like 'TTFN', and so forth. I gather they were pretty popular.
L R Waterbury
Posted: Friday, August 5, 2011 5:01 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

I certainly understand the need for at least mentioning social media and email, even if only for basic communication, but I also understand why authors might want to stay away from spending too much time on this, unless it's a very important part of the plot or the character. The truth is, it's very hard to incorporate written material into a book without it consistently breaking up the action. The exception are epistolary novels, of course (and I have heard of a trend in Japan of writing novels on cell phones), but in the majority of novels I just find inserting letters, emails, etc. into the text to be very distracting. Give me the information, but don't give me the text of the communication, unless the exact wording is important.

I think the basic problem with including the actual text of missives (whether it be in electronic form or written in an actual letter) is that this is a static thing. There's no action going on here. It's hard to make the act of reading and writing texts or tweets interesting, unless you're very, very good at bringing a character's inner thoughts to life. Otherwise, just give me the necessary info and let's get on with the story already.
Posted: Friday, August 5, 2011 6:10 PM
Joined: 3/11/2011
Posts: 157

I do see it more when I work with authors of YA novels, mostly with characters texting each other on cell phones instead of calling. Also, they'll Google to find info or perhaps check a Facebook post. So it is being done.

Part of the problem you might be seeing when you read books on the market is the time lag between when a writer starts writing a novel and when it actually hits the market. That can be as long as 3 to 5 years (depending somewhat on how fast the writer writes). So you were to start writing a novel today and include twitter and Facebook and whatever is popular now, it isn't that those would necessarily go away before the novel is out. It's just that while it's going through the publishing process, some new fad will pop up and everyone will wonder why the characters don't (insert fad here). The answer would be that the fad wasn't even a fad yet when you wrote the novel.
Danielle Bowers
Posted: Friday, August 5, 2011 6:29 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 280

The technology is advancing so fast I don't bother with brands or specifics. Cell phones- yes. I keep the terms vague when it comes to email, texting or any other forms of communication online. My characters are likely to send someone a message online or with their cell, but no other medium is mentioned.

One of my favorite YA authors wrote a series of three books in the 80's in which the main character loves Tab, Joan Jett and Hill Street Blues. It dated the book within five years and when the author rewrote the original three a few years ago,it was to replace all those references.

I'm not about to try to reinvent the wheel, I'll learn from her mistake and keep brands and references to anything currently trending out of my books.

Look at the first Iron Man movie? That came out in 2008 and one of the first lines references MySpace. Who is on myspace these days? Another five years and people will laugh about it.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 4:45 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Actually, the three Stieg Larsson novels all incorporate the modern Internet in a big way. Email is a major plot point. I think you'll find that in a lot of thrillers, actually.
Katherine Webber
Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 9:09 AM
Joined: 8/22/2011
Posts: 14

Read “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart. Near-future dystopian fiction that email/internet/texting/tweeting plays a major role. The author also takes it to the next step and includes some really cool (and creepy) possible futuristic technology. People in this world are so advanced that talking is almost outdated and they call it “verballing”. The main character is stuck in the “past” and loves books and actual conversation. Anyway- a large part of the dialogue is done via instant message, email, twitters, etc. Definitely worth reading if you want to see a good example of how to handle digital communication in a novel.
Posted: Saturday, October 15, 2011 9:42 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103

For me, whether or not technology and social networking is incorporated is dependent on the story (time period, setting, availability, MC's age & character). I can only speak for myself, but I don't intentionally avoid mention of it solely for a timelessness factor. Also, the time frame of the stories I read and write are clear so timelessness shouldn't be a factor.

Posted: Monday, October 17, 2011 2:48 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

My best crit partner uses a lot of technology in his YA novels. In particular, cell phones and texting are just part of the way characters communicate--he doesn't typically insert the text of these communications, just "he texted her to ask what time the movie started"--that sort of thing.

One suggestion I have for folks worried about dating themselves with a specific platform that might go out of style is to use a fictional platform. Basically, your characters have facebook profiles, but you call it something else, like "social hub" and have them use it in the ways people use various social networking platforms. Everything else can be real.

Frankly I get annoyed at brand-name-dropping in books. I don't care if you're drinking a diet coke or a tab or iced tea. Call it cola, or soda, or whatever. Brand names come off sounding like too much of a reach for timeliness and hipness to me.
Tim Gordon
Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 6:29 PM
Joined: 5/28/2011
Posts: 23

I'm not sure too much social networking can be in a book. Some, yes, but since (as someone noted above) it's so static, it doesn't really work. It would be like referencing a newspaper or another book: it can be done, yes, but only in limited quantity.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 10:55 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I'm a little surprised that no one has seen this, but then I think I may have been texting, after a fashion, longer than some of you. I'm not sure, but I think I started using instant messaging more frequently than the phone to communicate with friends in the late 90s. That means I've been habitually using it for nearly fifteen years and...

As a writer? Texting isn't like mailing letters. If it is, you're doing it wrong. Texting is conversation. If you can write a phone conversation into a book, you can write texting without it being static.

I'm not claiming to be the best in the world at it, but there's a conversation just like that in Drag.Race. I'm pretty sure I've seen it done better, too, but I can't recall where right now.

Okay, I'm going to hit 'Post'. Because that will jog my memory for sure.
Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2012 4:20 PM
The current story I'm working on, the characters have e-mail and texting - although cellphones aren't that reliable due to the location of the story.

Mckenzie M
Posted: Friday, October 18, 2013 11:21 AM
The problem with social networks/technology in books is that it can be used as a "magic" tool to cut around or avoid plot, hard work, etc. The plot is more thrilling if you don't have a cell phone to call for help, or Google to search to find the answer. I mean, which is more exciting--traveling to Oxford University in England to search an old "ancient" book for clues, or looking up the contents via Google from your computer in Toronto? Technology spoils the fun; but as someone mentions, use of technology is more common in YA.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, October 18, 2013 10:16 PM

I  think a lot of it is for the same reason novels didn't spend a lot of time on letters. It's conversation done far more slowly than in person, and there's hardly excitement building as we read that conversation.


People aren't reading to follow the protagonist around as they live the mundane details of their life. And they want the essence of conversation, not the conversation itself. They want every single line to develop character, set the scene, or move the plot. Hopefully, more then one of those at a time. So if you can include such communication that fits that criteria, without slowing the narrative, use it. If not...

Posted: Friday, November 22, 2013 12:07 AM
Joined: 11/21/2013
Posts: 1

"I wonder if part of the reason we don't see a lot of twittering (for example) going on in literature is a fear that it will feel dated. For example, reading a book now where a character is on myspace constantly would feel a bit odd."


That's a good point, actually.  This is especially something to watch out for if the author is trying to make his/her story feel modern.  Check out a classic science fiction story and you'll find that few things date a novel faster than the use of obsolete technology.  The truth is, society marches on in ways that we can't always predict.


That being said, the internet and social networks don't usually factor in to my stories because they're often irrelevant.  Of the two projects I'm working on, one is a post-apocalyptic wasteland of North America where internet chatter is an impossibility, and the other is a fantasy universe in an industrial revolution (a magical version of the internet is a century or so away.)


In stories where emails or texting did factor in, it became painful for me to write out the texts in a way that the character would type them.  So, I avoided doing so.

--edited by BRhodes on 11/22/2013, 12:07 AM--

Margaret Melchior
Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:15 AM
Joined: 1/7/2014
Posts: 8

I have an urban fantasy project brewing in the back of my head where the characters do make use of Social Networks and 'modern' communication technology. Though not exclusively. For example, they are all part of a certain, private Facebook group, almost all of them have cellphones and one of the characters is half-fairy and studies IT, so she's usually more up to date than even the average 'normal' person. The story is set in London, so characters also use their phones to, for example, check tube time tables or things like that. All that however holds a balance with other elements - communication via ouija boards, people seeking each other out in dreams to conspire against the government, things like that. 


I think communication technology can add to a story, if it's done well. I agree with what Robert C Roman said, effectively I see no difference between making a phone call and texting and if it's done well, it won't harm the flow of the story at all. That is, I repeat myself, if it's done well. I guess that is something to experiment with. Everyone basically knows how to write a dialogue, but there is no uniformly agreed upon way of integrating text messages and emails in a story, there's no 'gold standard' - we'll just have to figure it out ourselves!

Steve Yudewitz
Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 9:13 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 24

I have characters who email, text and job hunt via social media in my stories.  When Dave receives a mysterious text or Linda fires off an angry email, the content is discussed only if  it is important to the plot. I generally don't mention social media sites by name, since by the time the story gets published, it might make the story seemed dated (dude, I checked out your myspace page- sweet). The social media aspect of my characters' lives is inferred through bits of dialog or description.  Bill has a blog and no one reads it. No one follows anyone else on Twitter. Sometimes I ignore social media altogether in my stories. I leave it out, just like I cut out trips to the bathroom or someone flossing teeth.

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 11:27 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

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Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 11:27 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


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