Time bends on the outer rim of the Wikiverse. Visit the Luke Skywalker entry on Wikipedia, and you’ll find his adventures described in the present tense, a tacit acknowledgment that his story is a fictional one. Seek out the biographies of lesser Star Wars characters like Zax the Hutt or Darth Bandon, however, and you might catch the encyclopedia’s anonymous editors slipping into the past tense. Wikipedians discourage this style, which they refer to as “in-universe perspective,” because using the past tense suggests that imagined events really took place.
On Wikipedia, you’d face censure for writing, “In Cloud City, Darth Vader confessed that he was Luke’s father.” But if you were to instead write, “Vader confesses that he is Luke’s father,” your change would likely go unnoticed. In a small corner of Wikipedia’s edit wars, the struggle against in-universe perspective’s temporality reveals some of the larger ways people process works of fiction. These peripheral slippages into the past tense suggest that the most obscure stories may seem most real to those who know them well.
Marginality has long been a hallmark of the real. Almost 50 years ago, the French literary critic Roland Barthes noted that “every narrative, at least every Western narrative of the ordinary sort nowadays, possesses a certain number” of seemingly “useless details.” In and of themselves, he explained, these bits of insignificant description mean nothing, signifying only the material reality of the more significant information around them. When Flaubert describes an otherwise irrelevant barometer on the wall of a room, he does so to lend material weight to the imagined space. Naming this operation the “reality effect,” Barthes would go on to suggest that it has everything to do with the way we acknowledge what was or what has been. Traveling abroad, we tour ruined Roman villas not because they are inherently important, but because they stand in for the historical fact of a fallen empire. The smallest and most insignificant things, Barthes proposed, secure our faith in the larger ones.