I’ve been noticing Audience stand-ins in science fiction and fantasy recently. I don’t mean characters who are explicitly “the reader” in some kind of self-aware way, though those exist. Nor characters with whom the reader identifies–in general, that’s the role of the protagonist. I’m talking about characters which stand in for the Audience’s expectations of the main characters and the story in which they live–readers as a faceless mass, readers as an imposition.
In The Hunger Games (the first book in the series, at least), residents of the Capitol fill this role. They’re basically the readers of a YA novel: they pay good money to watch kids suffer through toil, pain, and death. They develop affection for some characters, antipathy toward others. They reward their child “main characters” with accolades for displays of emotional growth that fit their (the audience’s) desires for how the story fits together. And, ultimately, the only way Katniss can buck the audience’s lust for pathos and blood is to threaten to deny them their expected ending. (I really like young adult books, by the way–that’s part of the reason why I’m tickled by the notion that the Hunger Games edges around a critique of the genre.)
The Consu in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War fill a similar role, only for the military SF audience. For those of you who haven’t read Old Man’s War, the Consu are sorta-insectoid Elder Race type aliens, with better technology and more firepower than anyone else in the galaxy. But they fight very limited wars with younger races, because they think such wars consecrate the planets on which they take place, and improve the souls of the races that they fight. In the scene where the Consu are introduced, we meet a human soldier who’s a bit of a loser; the Consu, during their attack, shoot him in the face and as he dies they scream “REDEEMED! REDEEMED!” (I didn’t realize how on-the-nose this ways until I wrote that sentence.) For the Consu, battle is an opportunity to display nobility, to ascend the Great Chain of Being, and the more these battles involve wicked cool SF space marines, the better. At least in this book (the first in the series), the Consu present as a nearly-omnipotent Audience fascinated with the kinds of stories that can be told in Military SF–stories about duty, honor, bloodshed, courage, love in dangerous times, and all the rest. They’re such fans that they only accept ambassadors from lesser races who have proven themselves Main Character material.
I’m scratching my head trying to parcel out the significance of this, and wondering if I’m just imagining it all. Could presentations like the ones I’m describing arise from the fact that, due to the internet, the audience is more of a presence in creators’ minds? Are there further examples beyond these two? (The machines in the Matrix are one possibility…)