If you’re like me, you believe that fiction – more precisely, the story – is one of the most powerful forces on earth. And if we don’t use that power to try to make the world a better place, we are wasting a gift.
Trouble is, if you have an agenda – whether political, religious, or moral – your readers will smell it from a mile away, and it will make them mad. Not in the “oh, this is controversial” kind of mad, but the “quit trying to sell me something” kind of mad. Because, no matter how worthy the cause, you are selling something; a point of view.
As a copywriter for an advertising agency, I have a full time job selling things through writing – before you get out your pitchforks, hear me out; I’m a novelist first and foremost – and I’ve learned the difference between good advertising and bad, and how the same difference can make your novel a powerful message instead of a soapbox sermon. That difference is simple: a poorly-moralized novel just says “believe me” in the same way a bad advertisement just says “buy me.” It touts its own benefits, insults the competition, and ultimately cares for nothing but the message. Much like that closeout furniture salesman who waves his arms and yells “lowest prices ever!” at the camera.
On the other side, the message-in-a-novel done well cares about the story. That story is driven by the characters, not by an agenda. Take the eBay commercial above (click through if you’re reading in RSS or email). eBay didn’t just say “buy stuff from us!” – in fact, they didn’t say it once. Instead, they created a character and a story we could relate to. It’s simple, but it’s moving, and the message (buy stuff on eBay) is an organic part of that story, not just tacked on at the end. It is, in fact, a prime example of show-don’t-tell.
Do not, then, simply construct a story to serve your agenda. Instead, when you write your novel, put aside your agenda for a moment. Focus on your characters and the story they create with their personalities, desires, and actions. Write as honestly as possible, and if you are truly pouring your soul into it, a deeper meaning will grow naturally out of the story.
Remember to make your villain – the character with the opposing viewpoint – as realistic as possible. Don’t become bigoted in your passion, making the villain stupid, heartless, or insane. Make them as smart, as human, as grounded as you are. Argue both sides of the question, and do it with conviction. Otherwise, your novel will be nothing but a 300-page commercial.
So the moral of this story is, focus on the story, not the moral.
What books that you’ve read seemed to be selling a certain point of view? Which ones delivered a message that seemed to spring forth naturally?