In high school, I was a notorious binge reader. In one series that I particularly enjoyed, the philosophical subtext of the opening book’s plot fascinated me. I eagerly acquired the second volume in the then already lengthy series and devoured it. Then the third, the fourth, the fifth and so forth. However, instead of getting invested in the series as I normally would, I found myself enjoying each subsequent book less and less. It wasn’t until years later, as I trudged through the final installment of the series, that I realized the reason. The philosophy had moved from the background and taken over the story. Where the author had once lead me to water, he was now trying to force me to drink his point of view. I didn’t want to and it was a struggle to finish. He has published several books since that series concluded, but I haven’t finished a single one.
What it came down to me was that I was no longer being entertained, I was being preached to. There is a place and a time where I seek preaching, but that isn’t in my fiction. Themes inevitably find their way into my works, however, I never write with the intent of giving a lesson. Thematic elements and morality should always be a function of the beliefs of the characters and therefore grounded in their actions. A character should never need to say that they would sacrifice their own life to save that of their children, they should simply put themselves in harm’s way. I have found that characters who act upon their beliefs present a much more compelling argument than a monologue. I see it as one of the great ironies of written fiction; actions are still more powerful than words.
Even the most exquisitely characterized protagonist is still inherently a stand-in for the reader. Through fiction, I can be a wizard, a space pirate or super hero. I can live a thousand lives and face a million choices. I can receive emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback and will pay for the privilege. Through fiction, I am forced to vicariously confront hard truths in my own world. Therefore, lessons are more effective when a character I love is placed in a dilemma. How would I act and react given the same motivations and situations? Can I truly blame the character for committing perfectly rational, horrible act when I may not have made different decisions? When I read fiction, I want to be presented with questions, not answers.
Beginning the Discussion: What are some stories that have shaped your own belief systems?Tags: Sequence 01: The MICE Quotient