fiction does not equal philosophy

There are a lot of writers out there who want to change the world with their book.

And look, I’m not going to throw a moratorium on world-changing through fiction. I can think of a few instances offhand where fiction has had a huge impact on society. Countries rally around their fiction. The stories we tell to ourselves and to each other define our self and our societies in ways that are multifaceted and complex. They matter.

If you want to try to change the world through fiction, I am not so jaded that I would suggest that you do not try. And honestly, I’m not really an expert on changing the world. I haven’t particularly had much success with that on a grand scale in the past twenty seven years, so I wouldn’t recommend holding my opinions about world-changing in much esteem anyway.

I am, however, pretty well-versed in book building. And I really, really want to remind you world-changing authors: Fiction is not about message. Fiction is about story.  If you neglect this small fact, your book will suffer.

I am not going to argue that good books don’t carry messages. I mean, isn’t that what high school English class is all about? You suffer through three hundred pages of some dusty classic and then write a thinly-disguised five paragraph essay about the book’s thematic material and the juxtaposition of some such with another such.

Yes, great books have messages. And not-so-great books have messages, too. Thematic material is important in fiction. It’s the sense of a deeper meaning and engagement that propels us through the characters and events and gives us something to think about after we close the book.

The key here, though, is that the message underlies the plot. The message propels us through the actual medium of the story: the characters and the events. The message could not exist in fiction form without the story. It is the vehicle, the driver, the transmitter. Prioritizing the message over the story is the death knell of fiction.

Before you invest hours in creating book that “conveys your message,” I would encourage you to think about whether fiction is the best medium for transmitting a complicated theme to your readers.

If you glance through history, story has been employed for thousands of years as a method for conveying messages to the people. Morality plays, fables, and even the Bible have been used as vehicles to help the populace understand essential truths about the human condition. The thing is, when you look at the takeaway from these stories, the message is simple. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Be happy, treat others well, appreciate love.

These simple messages are easily conveyed through fiction, of course. But one advantage we have today over populations from 458 B.C.E. is that most consumers of story can read. They don’t need someone to wrap a moral in a pretty story in order to understand it. If you have a complicated message, you can convey it in any number of ways. You can design a program. You can write a self-help book. You can write non-fiction or a treatise or an anthem. You have many, many options.

If you want to tell a story, write fiction. If you want to explore character and conflict, write fiction. If you want to create worlds, write fiction. You can do these things and make people think. And while you can entertain and inform, the story, the characters, the conflict, and the world building has to come first. If you find yourself prioritizing the message over the narrative, fiction may not be the best medium for your work. Message-laden fiction is preachy and heavy and it does not sing.

For example, let’s look at C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Ayn Rand, the progenitor of objectivism. Both authors were hugely motivated by the expression of some core truth. Both authors created epic, sprawling narratives. Both authors have been read by hundreds of thousands of people, and both are well-loved (and fiercely hated).

But only one of these author’s stories are commonly read to children before bed.  Rand pummels her readers with her message. Every character decision and conflict is designed to convey some aspect of her philosophy. It’s not uncommon to see pages of essay thinly disguised as dialogue. There are not many people who read Rand for the pure pleasure of the story.

C.S. Lewis, on the contrary, weaves his message into magic and fantasy and narrative. His message only becomes apparent with space and time, like watching a fuzzy image slowly come into focus through binoculars. C.S. Lewis was a master of story, and his reward is apparent in the fact that children will indoctrinate themselves in his ideas. After all, it’s a lot easier to convey your message when a person has been cherishing its vehicle since childhood. 

I’d like you to do a quick inventory of the books that you’ve really enjoyed over the years. Describe these books to yourself. What do you love about them? Is it their tight description of philosophical premise? Is it their setting of theological thought? Or is it their characters, their events, their whimsy? While Rand is a single example of an author who gained recognition with the model of fiction-as-a-message, there are tens of thousands of beloved books that focus on story for every one of hers.

Ultimately, the message of the book is like the filling in a jelly donut. The donut (or the story) is the vehicle for the jelly, which may come as a pleasant surprise midway through a doughy snack. When you prioritize your message over the story, it’s like handing out globs of jelly at a donut store. People go in looking for tasty baked goods and you fling cherry compote in their face.

If people wanted jelly, they’d go buy some. It’s the same with “message.” If someone is looking to read a book about philosophy, there are plenty of books for them to choose from. People don’t pick up fiction looking for edification. They’re looking for a story! It’s okay if there’s a bit of message in the middle. But the narrative has to come first.

Besides, if you’re dead set on broadcasting a message…you can always start a blog. :)

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