A Few Thoughts on Why We Do What We Do

Caroline Furlong posted this on MeWe a while ago, and I really liked it:

It’s true, and it’s also why the current culture wars are so vital. It’s why people get so angry about the content of books or TV shows or movies, about what their children read and see.

But, if you think about it, it’s also a massive compliment to the author. If something I wrote has that kind of power to influence a young mind, that’s both amazing and terrifying.

One of the pitfalls of that kind of knowledge is the temptation to make stories into morality tales. If I can influence someone’s mind with my work, then shouldn’t I do exactly that? Shouldn’t I write a good, wholesome story, with an important message in it?

Not exactly.

“Message fic” is a massive failure in most cases. It flops, because it can’t entertain. I don’t pick up a novel to be instructed. I pick it up in order to be entertained. If there’s a lesson in there along the way, fine. But if I’d wanted instruction, I’d pick up a textbook or a bible or a historical account, or a self-help book, not a novel.

Nobody wants to read Piers Plowman or the modern libertarian version, Atlas Shrugged. In those, the story takes a backseat to the message. Even in Les Miserables, one of my favorite classics, Victor Hugo stops the action to stand on a soap box and lecture you about the miseries of society, and how education and reform of the political system will somehow save all “the miserables.”

But how much of Hugo’s lectures actually survived? Almost none, unless you bother reading the complete and unabridged version (good luck with the Battle of Waterloo and the history of the sewers of Paris). His story, on the other hand, has been made into one of the most popular musicals of all time, including several different (musical and non-musical) movies.

And yet, at the same time, his story has the much more powerful message. I did my thesis on it. It isn’t the reform he preaches about, or a universal free education, that saves anyone in that story. It was one man’s mercy. The Bishop saved Jean Valjean, and that man turned around and saved countless others, not just the named characters, from poverty, misery, and despair.

That is a message, and it’s one that will outlast any soap-box preaching.

As authors, we have to be able to recognize what our job is: to entertain. We should do it well, of course, but we can’t see the immediate effect of the stories we write.

Who knows how the actions of Special Agent David Carter or Agent Veronique de Tournay’s profiling skills will affect someone? I’d be satisfied with people simply being entertained by their stories. The biggest compliment a writer can get is when someone tells them that they stayed up all night to finish the book. That’s happened to me once, and I nearly cried I was so happy.

I didn’t stop their story to preach, but I hope that their character and their actions would have even a small effect on a reader. If those readers choose to have Carter and de Tournay in their heads, then I hope my characters pass the “choose wisely” test.

So remember the above picture. We are the ones who feed the minds of members of this society. I’d rather be a tasty meal, with dessert included, than candy that eventually turns to poison.

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