One of my social media groups was discussing an interesting topic the other day. One that I have an opinion about, as a matter of fact. Here’s the question that started the thread (I’ve paraphrased it):
Due to my trepidation about being attacked by members of another group for asking about this, I’ve come here to ask: How important is message in stories? There is a general relationship between message and theme, but I’d like to know how much of your personal or social values do you put in your writing?
I read through the thread and concluded that in general, the consensus was it’s okay to put your values in your stories as long as you don’t preach and actively shove them in the reader’s face. The responses were thoughtful and not hysterical. (You can see why I favor that particular group.)
Here’s my personal opinion on the question:
You cannot help but instill at least part of your own values in a story since your values are both a result and a cause of how you view the world and your worldview informs your imagination.
I’m not saying it cannot be done, but I think it shouldn’t. Trying to suppress who you are while writing is tantamount to lying to your readers. I think they will, at some level, realize that and feel your story is inauthentic. That may be enough to steer them away from your work in the future. That is a result an author should strive to avoid.
On the other hand, I think you shouldn’t proselytize. That quickly gets boring for most readers and at least some of today’s readers have become sensitized by both cultural trends and education to the point that they find something to offend them in any opinion or story that varies from what they’ve been taught.
Styles of writing change and evolve, however. Modern fiction is mostly intended to entertain, but in the past, novels focused on particular values and often dropped them with all of the subtlety of hitting the reader on the head with a hod of bricks. Mark Twain used this analogy in one of his essays wherein he writes of a man who was killed by a bricklayer’s apprentice accidentally dropping his load from the roof. Twain wrote that humans were susceptible to such events, but dogs were not. That is because, as he observed, a dog would know enough to look up and would then get out of the way.
I would suggest that same foresight on the part of overly sensitive individuals would forestall a lot of the criticism directed at authors who don’t follow popular guidelines. In other words, if the book offends you, just put it down, but at least have the grace to allow others to make up their own minds about the value therein. Screaming for help and working to assemble a group attack on the author is the act of a cultural barbarian. If humans always condemned creative or different ideas, we would be sitting in a cave watching a fire and scratching flea bites.
I would argue that communicating cultural values is the main point of telling stories. Authors write stories because they love to entertain others (and would like to make money at it). They usually don’t set out to create morality plays, except in the case of some factions. There are specific groups who are actively writing science fiction and fantasy (I speak of the genre in which I write since I don’t read much else) who find it necessary to slam the reader in the face with their ideas about inclusiveness and diversity. Generally speaking, I find that such tales quickly become tedious and are often unreadable. However, I will defend the author’s right to write what they want. Let them proceed and let the market sort out the winning stories from the losers.
Let’s approach the issue from another angle. It is possible to gradually move your readers’ worldview, provided you tell a compelling story. That’s why I opt for positive character arcs that allow the protagonist to develop more self-responsibility. I firmly believe that is the first step in taking control of your life–stop being a victim of circumstances and others. Victims languish and complain. Those who have a modicum of self-responsibility will take action to change their results in life. There is no honor or glory in allowing oneself to be a victim since we always have a choice.
I firmly believe that a great author will always intend that some good come to the reader from the story. I realize that this is subject to challenge, but, overall, I think it is true. It’s just that “good” can be defined in so many different ways. Readers of horror stories find some value for which they seek, just as do readers of inspirational literature.
This viewpoint has gotten me in trouble with some ideological readers who are intolerant of any challenges to their worldview. (Fair warning: My stories are based on my love of self-responsibility, liberty, and the belief that reality is what it is and cannot be denied.) That bothered me at first because I naturally want to please everyone. Then I decided that my primary position is that if they opt to be offended, it’s their choice, not mine. I’ve found that anything in life that you cannot handle — anything that upsets you — will continue to present itself until you learn to deal with it with equanimity. As a result of my decision, I sometimes describe myself as a “dangerous” writer in the hopes that sensitive types will be warned.
As an object lesson, consider that cats always try to sit on the lap of the person in a group who most dislikes them. They’re brilliant that way and will go to great effort to help humans cope with their biases. Some dogs do the same, but with less regularity and forcefulness. Basically, the correct response here is to accept the cat’s attention and pet them. They will consider that their job is done and get on with other catness-related activities.
Ignoring them can work, but they can become importunate. In that case, you can always leave.
This last strategy also applies to critics. The general rule that all writers should understand is basically the same one that should be used with trolls in comment threads. That is to say, don’t engage with anyone who gives a hateful review. It only serves to validate their feeling of self-righteousness and stimulate them to further attacks. Of course, ignoring them may incite them also, but you don’t have to suffer their insults that way.
A person actively decides to be insulted or to ignore perceived slights. One can be offended by an entirely innocent remark directed at someone else, but that is a choice, not a mandatory requirement. Many people don’t understand that self-responsibility is a requirement for personal growth, civil discourse, and progress.
Here’s the takeaway point: if this post makes you angry … you (it’s not my responsibility) have to work on some issues:-)