Writing Reflections: Welcome to the Puppet Show

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Messages in Fiction

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I’ve been reading a fair few books lately which were designed to have a “message” – that is, to convince the reader of a certain point of view, using fiction as a medium for the author’s voice. Message fiction and I don’t usually get along: I have never enjoyed being told what to do, let alone what to think, and most of the time the “message” part tends to get in the way of the “fiction” part, spoiling my entertainment. Even if I agree with what the author’s trying to say, it’s kind of irksome to have someone I don’t know and will probably never meet forcing their philosophy into my brainspace, and the book often becomes like a puppet show, with the characters and plot serving the message instead of the other way around.

There are always messages in fiction, of course, even if they’re only implicit ones. In fact, most such messages aren’t obvious. They tell us things about life, about the author’s understanding of the world, and often convince us to change our minds about things without ever having to come out and say it. And for the most part, I prefer this kind of novel. I want to be able to do my own thinking and come to my own conclusions – and most of all, I want to be able to read and enjoy the book without being able to see the strings. Still, there are some authors who manage to do it, and sometimes there are messages that need to be written. So how do you go about talking to your audience without alienating them or turning your novel into a puppet show?

Let the characters do the talking. By which I mean, think about whether or not they would believe or agree with the perspective you want to give them, and give them a reason to do so. If you must, have them disagree with this position and learn to change their mind. Character growth can often be a great way of getting the audience invested in the book, and if they’re invested, they’re most likely going to be open to what you have to say. Be careful, however. There’s nothing that annoys me more than the way some authors seem to imply that, naturally, everyone will come around to The Right Way of Thinking (aka their opinion) with nothing more than a slight, well-intentioned nudge in the right direction. Any change must be natural, necessary and nuanced. Few people go from homophobe to GLBT-ally overnight.

Don’t make the message your main reason for telling the story. Every author has something they want people to take away from their book. Sometimes, this will just be this person is an amazing writer, but most of the time a writer tends to have a theme that becomes their message to the reader: what they want them to learn, or to think about, both while reading the book and after they close the covers and walk away. Ideally, the theme is obvious to the observant, but does not dominate the novel — it’s one element of the plot, not the sole reason for its existence. One of the failings of message fiction, therefore, can be that it focuses too much on the message, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. A novel which insists on telling you what it’s all about shows you its puppet strings, hell, it shows you the puppeteer, and just like that the magic is gone. Instead of a whole new world of interesting thoughts, feelings, and characters, what you hold in your hand is a literary Trojan horse, smuggling an authorial screed dressed up as fiction.

Be original. Originality is at times the bane of a writer’s life and it is all too easy to fall back on the old, “nothing new under the sun” canard. But the fact is, message fiction in particular is one area where you can almost guarantee that someone else has written about it before. Women are equals? Done. Racism is wrong? Done. Nuclear proliferation is the only way to secure peace? Hell, that’s been done too. So obviously I don’t mean that your message has to be something nobody has ever heard before. But I do think that doing some research is a wise idea. Novels about gay teens, for example, usually carrying the message of tolerance, have a tendency to follow the same tropes of bullying, bigotry and eventual physical violence. While this is based on a reality, the fact remains that after a few of such books they all start to read the same. So you have to work to make them stand out by mixing up the elements or trying a fresh approach. Riding on the coattails of an emerging trend (ahem, vampires, I’m looking at you) isn’t going to cut it for the discerning reader: you have to add your own twist to the approach, or they’re going to you tune out, and they’ll tune out your message too.

Ultimately, I think message fiction fills a necessary niche in the literary world, but I can’t say it’s one of my favourite things to read. It has a tendency towards Unfortunate Implications, for one thing. Once you make a plot a vehicle for something other than itself, particularly a political thought or idea, you get into the sticky position wherein each character may be seen to Stand For something. Each gay person stands as a symbol for all gay people; each woman becomes a proxy for All Women, and so on. As a particularly annoying side effect, this outlook sometimes seems to bleed into the way people read other books as well, so that a novelist with a racist character might find himself being judged as racist, even if he is the most egalitarian of men, and so forth (more on that in next week’s Reflection). It is important, therefore, to remember to ask yourself: do I need to write it this way? Is this the only way I can get my message across? Because, honestly, half of the time I think authors would have done better just writing an essay instead.

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  1. June 26th, 2010

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