When you Really, Really Care

photo by MonsieurLui

Lately I’ve had several clients come to me with the same problem—they want to make a point more than they want to tell a story. That’s fine for essays, blogs, even non-fiction books, but fiction is not the best place to make an argument, not unless you want to join the ranks of propagandists.

Of course, propaganda can sometimes change the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought the brutality of slavery to life in 1852 and inspired many to join the abolitionists and, later, the Union army. People fought and died because of that book. But today, kids are only likely to encounter it in history classes. No one’s reading it for fun anymore.

On the other hand, Huck Finn also changed the world, undermining prejudice by introducing readers to Jim. Yet Twain’s book is still read in literature classes. And for fun.

So what’s the difference between propaganda and a novel that broadens your readers’ minds?

Respect for your characters, for starters. The most effective way to open your readers to a new worldview is to immerse them in the lives of sympathetic people who live in that larger world. Dickens’ readers came to care about the plight of poor children because they cared about Oliver Twist. Stephen Crane’s readers turned against the horrors of war because they experienced them in The Red Badge of Courage. Emotional connections are a lot more likely to change minds than reasoned argument.

As soon as your characters start acting out of character to put your argument across – the moment they stop living and start preaching – you can kiss that emotional connection good-bye. After that, your readers may inadvertently be exposed to information – some people do read Francisco d’Anconia’s pages-long lecture on the gold standard in Atlas Shrugged— but they’ll stop caring.

And respect your readers, especially the ones who disagree with you. They’re who you’re trying to win over. One reason Galileo faced the Inquisition was that, when he wrote his dialogue defending the heliocentric theory, he put the Pope’s arguments in the mouth of a duffer named Simplicio. If you approach your story assuming that the people who don’t agree with you must be ignorant, venal, or stupid, you’re not going to portray them in a good light. Readers won’t hang around to be insulted, so you wind up driving off everyone who disagrees with you and preaching to the choir.

You can avoid this trap by a simple act of imagination — put yourself in the minds of people who think differently from you. Read what they’ve written, make their arguments for them, see the world from their point of view. Give their side a fair shake, and you’ll be much more likely to win them over to your own, even if they really are ignorant, venal, or stupid. Galileo was right, after all.

One recent client had a main character who changed his political views mid-book to something closer to the client’s views. The problem was that, before his conversion, the views that character held were self-evidently ridiculous. I’m sure my client didn’t intend to set up a straw man – he was just misled by his passion for what he believed in. But after we worked to make the character’s pre-conversion position more plausible, his conversion was a lot more convincing. And readers were more likely to change their minds with him.

Finally, remember that opening minds is often as valuable as changing them. Some years ago, a workshop participant was worried that her prologue, written from the point of view of an environmental activist, might alienate readers who disagreed with the character. I pointed out that, if she made her activist authentic and sympathetic, readers would understand her, even if they didn’t agree with her.

It can be a lot of fun to get behind a literary pulpit and shred your opponents. But as any preacher can tell you, sermons rarely change people’s minds. The best way to reach people with what you’re trying to say is to forget the message. Just tell them a good story.

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting thoughts, Dave! I suppose I’ve never really felt that impulse to “Get a point across” in a story. Yet. ;-) At this point in my very new authoring career, I’m generally content to tell a good story that people enjoy. Maybe in a few years I’ll try something ambitious of this nature, but who knows? There’s a lot of fun to be had just by providing people with an entertaining story to read. Still, if I ever do a story like the ones you’ve discussed above, I’ll certainly take your tips to heart! Good stuff!

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  2. Chro says

    I read a work of fiction recently where both sides on the argument over abortion were presented well. But if the author had an agenda, they failed to convey it. In the end, the mother was forced to get an abortion against her will, so both the pro-choice and pro-life sides would have been extremely unhappy with the situation.

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  3. says

    ‘And respect your readers, especially the ones who disagree with you. They’re who you’re trying to win over.’

    There are no stories in a vacuum. Even the simplest story says ‘this is the way things SHOULD be.’ Every author is making an argument for something, even if it is ‘this is a pleasant way to pass time.’

    So, in the process of advocating FOR something, the author gets to show what she thinks of an idea, by how well she supports her argument. If you really care, you will show the consequences of a situation and the choices that lead the characters from the start to your conclusion. You will demolish the contrary opinions by admitting every good point they have, and then making the consequences to holding them both obvious and negative.

    You will make it impossible, at the end, for a reasonable person to end up anywhere other than where you want them to.

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  4. says

    Not that I’ve never had a preachy character (but even when I have, hopefully readers will see that preachiness is not out of character in the instance), but I’ve been more along the lines of writers who unearth their own views during the process.

    It’s a common sentiment, so the quote is attributed to many, but I live Joan Didion’s version: ““I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

    Nicely done, Dave.

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  5. says

    I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Flight Behavoir”. Of course, Ms. Kingsolver is known for her “pen as sword” approach to writing and this book was probably one of the move obvious of her efforts. Her story is engaging enough and her writing, as always, amazing. Somehow, she manages to get away with being obvious in her crusades.

    My point being, I think it can be done– writers, as you pointed out, have been doing this for a long time. Words are amazingly powerful. With that comes responsibility, of course. But in fiction, the writing and story must come first.

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  6. says

    A good example of a writer “on a mission” is Flannery O’Connor, whose satiric target is the smug blindness of the secular world, but who writes such funny stories that she has her readers horse laughing at her fools just before they see themselves.

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  7. says

    I LOVE this topic and I actually have a piece in the upcoming issue of Writers Digest about putting politics in the novel. Basically, I’m all for it, with caveats.

    I agree that fiction can be one of the most powerful tools of social changes, and that approach is everything. Weaving in your politics is one of those writing times that the old advice to show, not tell, is critical.

    Some of the most commercial, profitable novels of the day contain powerful socio-political messages, e.g. The Hunger Games. The books are largely told, without many frills, by a teenager for teenagers, but Collins shows us a world where all the money and power are concentrated in the hands of a small elite minority.

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  8. says

    I read a lot of non-fiction. I prefer both sides of an argument presented fairly. If I have an opinion and the book made me rethink my position, I recommend the book to others.

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  9. says

    Muahahaha-

    Thank you Mr. King, I was looking for away to get my point across to readers without sounding preachy. My goal is to tell good stories and brainwash people at the same time. Even though I have a wicked laugh, I want to touch the hearts and minds of people in a manner that is (possibly) beneficial to the reader or at the very least thought provoking.

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  10. says

    Stimulating post, Dave. I always loved Irving’s Cider House Rules for the way it came at the notion of abortion from so many different directions through its well orchestrated set of characters. Guess I’m from the “opening minds” school of thought.

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  11. Carmel says

    Great post! If your readers care about your character, they’ll care about her problem. And being in her shoes as she experiences that problem is going to open a reader’s mind faster than any dry words.

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  12. says

    Thanks for the topic. I grew up near the Texas border and have to slap my hands sometimes I want so badly to use writing to shake up politics.
    But, I know I back off and feel a bit tricked when a fiction writer steps up on a soapbox.
    Barbara DeShong
    MysteryShrink

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  13. says

    Hi Dave,

    Perfect timing for me. I am currently working to make a character, who believes and acts extremely narrow-minded, sympathetic to my readers. I have nurtured compassion for her throughout the first draft and now I am really enjoying the process of finding ways to spark that same compassion in my readers.

    Thanks!

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  14. says

    As those of you who follow my personal Facebook page know, I’m . . . interested in politics. (All right, I’m wonky enough to know the economic multiplier in a liquidity trap and the flaws of the Reinhart-Rogoff hypothesis.) So I’ve always been fascinated by how to actually talk to people who disagree with you. As many of you said, you’ve got to respect your opponents.

    This doesn’t mean that you should always try to find a middle position on every issue. It’s often the case that one side is right and the other side is wrong. But that doesn’t mean the wrong side is only held by idiots. Give or take the Flat Earth Society, there are few issues that don’t have reasonable people on both sides. Even Galileo’s opponents had a point about stellar parallax.

    But the issue in this article is how to write fiction that changes peoples’ minds. And the answer is, you can’t do it by trying. It’s almost a zen thing. If you set out to make an argument, you probably won’t win anyone over. If you forget the argument and set out to tell a good story, you may.

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