Let’s establish one thing right now. Every story has a message. Every author has a bias. Every author has multiple biases. There’s no such thing as something that’s ‘Just A Story’. Anybody who says that clearly doesn’t understand the role that fiction plays in influencing us and our attitudes towards the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe helped start the Civil War, of all things.
Some of these messages are really, really obvious. 1984 isn’t intended to be overly subtle, and neither are movies like FernGully: The Last Rainforest or Avatar. Others are a lot subtler, like A Song of Ice and Fire - that series in particular is extraordinarily subtle because it doesn’t so much take a stance as explore the multiple sides of various issues (There’s a pretty strong War Sucks message, as well as an anti-misogyny one, but once again, they’re not as obvious as the others listed.)
Today’s article is about how to get your message across or explore your theme. Especially when it gets political, it can be hard to keep your story on track and not be tempted to go on a fifty-page rant about why this is wrong and everybody needs to just stop. And the first stop on this little journey is the omnipresent -
1) Know what you’re talking about. DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Are you against abortion? Do you want to argue for sanctity of life? Well, I can’t stop you. It’s not my job to tell what to write about. But I WILL tell you - know what you’re talking about. Don’t start writing about abortion without knowing your shit.
Research abortion procedure. Actually learn about why people get abortions. Learn about the itty-gritty details. And, most importantly, learn about the shitty things people do to protest abortion. Murdered doctors, harassed women, horrible procedures and more. Don’t nitpick your details.
And if you think I’m biased, I’m gonna say the same thing about feminism. If you’re gonna write something about feminism, that’s great. But you can’t just go ‘Girls Need Empowerment!’ Remember, there are plenty of people who call themselves feminist who are racist, transphobic, abusive, ableist and generally shitty people. The history of feminism is not an overwhelmingly positive one, and not just because of men.
Why is this important? Well, like I said above, one of the reasons ASOIAF is so popular is that it doesn’t take absolute positions on issues - it discusses them. Tyrion is a disabled man, but he’s also a misogynist ass. Then you see Cersei, who has very, very valid reasons to hate everybody and be really pissed off about how she’s treated as a woman in a really sexist society. It’s not just a ‘Girls Need Better’ treatise - it shows women being treated badly, it shows why
they’re being treated badly, it shows people who are otherwise decent upholding sexist values, and it shows a huge variety of women reacting to these norms. (Arya, Sansa, Cersei, Ygritte, Asha, Catelyn, etc.). Yet ultimately, the message we’re getting is a pro-women one. Look at these women. Look at them all. Look how amazing they are. Don’t they deserve better? And that’s the kind of subtlety that everyone should strive for, even if they don’t achieve it. (Sidenote: just because your message isn’t subtle doesn’t mean that it or your writing is bad. It just means that anybody who doesn’t already agree might roll their eyes and put it down.)
So know your stuff - otherwise you’re preaching stuff that may or may not even be right, to people who already know it.
2) Your characters are not mouthpieces.
Everybody puts at least a little of themselves into their characters - it’s impossible to avoid. But that doesn’t mean that they’re there for you to use as a mouthpiece.
Here’s an example. Your character, the tough, stoic warrior of the group of people off to the Mountain of Terror to destroy the Singular Cup, suddenly goes on a rant about how war is bad. Well…why? He’s a warrior. If he has a genuine reason
to go on that rant, then that’s fine. But if he’s a strong, silent kind of person, why’s he ranting? Is it a personal topic for him? Has he been truly, horribly scarred by war?
…Or are you co-opting your own character to say what you
want to say? Characters can have strong views and opinions, but those need to line up with the character and be consistent - or at least change
consistently (aka as part of a character arc). And the way they express those views need to be consistent. If you have an extremely opinionated pacifist healer, chances are they’ll stop or at least have serious issues with aiding someone who’s going straight back to the front lines. It all depends on the character.
3) Don’t strawman.
This is actually part of the first one - doing your research and representing both sides fairly. Yes, you can represent your side and your message and your political views. No, you can’t turn the other side into Evil People. That includes:
- having only villains actually disagree with your favoured political view
- having anybody who disagrees with your favoured political view change their mind by the end
- having anybody who disagrees with characters who share your view sound ridiculous when arguing about it and use incorrect information
- having anybody who disagrees with your political view meet an unfortunate end
…and so on and so forth. Strawmanning also includes misrepresenting the opposing view on purpose - ie. turning ‘Feminism means equality for women’ into ‘Feminists hate all men and want to turn them into slaves’.
4) Put the story first.
It’s more important for something to make good plot sense than for it to line up with your argument. Not everybody ‘walks the walk’ 100% of the time. The character, plot and message all need to work together.
For more information, check out TV Tropes! There’s a lot of information on Author Tracts, Aesops and Anvilicious Aesops.