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Yes, Your Novel Has a Message

image by Ross Angus

So, Captain America is a Nazi.

You may not have noticed this in the Avengers movies – because in the movies, that’s not the case. The reveal that Captain America has been a Hydra agent all along was announced as part of a new series of Marvel comics, Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. Marvel has stated that completely redefining the loyalties of the superhero most associated with America (I mean, it’s in the name and everything) is “not a political statement [1].”

Guess what: whether it’s meant that way or not, it is. Maybe not political, but definitely a statement. Definitely.

In a related vein, you may have read that the cast of the new adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu resisted calling the show “feminist” [2] at a film festival event.

Ditto: whether it’s meant that way or not, it is. Feminist means women should be treated as equal to men, and by showing us a bleak, unpleasant (to put it mildly) dystopia where women’s rights are stripped and their value to society is based only on their reproductive capabilities, the show inherently argues that this treatment is wrong. If the show were on board with the extreme marginalization of women and smothering dissent with bullets, it would present these events very differently.

One more example from the world of book-to-TV/movie crossover: I recently devoured the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s book “13 Reasons Why.” I must admit I suffer from the writer’s disease of rarely being able to enjoy anything written purely as a reader or viewer; I’m always looking at the bones under the skin, analyzing the writing, wondering what decision the writer – not the character – will make next.

So two or three episodes into “13 Reasons”, when a character raised the question of whether or not Hannah’s words could be trusted, I thought: Is that where this is going? Will it be revealed that this suicidal girl is not innocent and wronged, but manipulative and vengeful, even from beyond the grave? I do love unexpected plot twists, and that would certainly be unexpected. What made me realize quickly that that was unlikely was the fact that I knew the show had been adapted from a young adult novel, and while YA books don’t shy away from complexity, they also provide young adults the tools with which to interpret their world. I doubted the book would be so popular and loved if its basic message were If someone tells you they were bullied and mistreated in high school, don’t believe them.

Because every book has a message. It’s not as simple as “Heroes can be villains” or “Stand up for your rights no matter what” or “Be nice to each other,” but that’s part of it. You have to be careful with your characters: what they say, what they do, how they move through the world.

I’m not generally a fan of novels that are written solely to communicate a message, but I believe that every novel does send messages to its readers, intended or not. While writing my latest novel, inspired by the real-life first female detective in America, Kate Warne, I had read that Warne was widely assumed to be having an affair with her boss, Allan Pinkerton. Yet there was no actual evidence of an affair, and so I thought, What message am I sending if they do get romantically involved in my novel? Am I saying that’s what probably happened? I’d rather have readers walk away with a sense that Kate was independent and fierce and a trail-blazer, rather than the idea that even a trailblazing woman got preferential treatment because a powerful man cut her some slack for romantic/sexual reasons.

Don’t write a book to send a message. But do think about the messages your book might send, whether or not you intend them.

About Greer Macallister [3]

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN'S LIE was an Indie Next pick, Target Book Club selection, and a USA Today bestseller, and has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain's Freckle Films. Her next novel is GIRL IN DISGUISE, about America's first female private investigator, Kate Warne (Sourcebooks, March 2017.)