Oct
5
2015

Walk Softly and Carry a Subtle Pen

I have found that arguing a point is a remarkably ineffective way of changing someone’s mind. First, argument is by its very nature an aggressive act, and therefore can be defended against. If you engage someone’s pride, they’ll dig into their position and defend it to the death simply to “win.” Once this happens, most participants in an argument spend more time planning their next salvo than actually listening to the other person’s points. Then, the discourse devolves into a spiral of fallacy and vitriol. There has to be a better way, right? I think there is, and that we writers are perfectly placed to take advantage of it.

I have found that story is often one of the best vehicles for persuasion. After all, authors make their living off convincing people to suspend their disbelief, empathize with a cast of strangers, and engage in a story. We should use this ability to allow people to confront their prejudice and preconceptions. The key here is that you can’t let your story become an argument. If the reader feels like they are being preached at or attacked, they will become defensive and the struggle is lost.

Instead, it is essential to create a cast of characters with a wide variety of firmly held convictions and let them demonstrate those beliefs through their actions. By representing both sides fairly, honestly, and with narrative verisimilitude, the characters implicitly argue the entirety of the conflict. Furthermore, you can structure a solid story by forcing your characters to face and overcome the social, political, and economic injustices you wish to address. If the author has done their job correctly, created empathetic characters and a compelling plot, the reader will close the cover on the book and look up into their own world with new eyes.

This is precisely why readers tend to score very high on psychological tests designed to measure empathy. Through books, they have lived hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Literally. Recent psychological studies have demonstrated that reading fiction engages the same areas of the brain that would fire if they actually performed the action themselves. Through fiction, readers have experienced the depth and breadth of human emotion and been forced to confront those fundamentally different from themselves. They have been persuaded to see the world from a new perspective for a few hundred pages and hopefully have emerged changed.

Some authors have chosen to be less subtle and have used politics and social advocacy as a building block for their brand. From a business perspective, the major advantage of this approach is exposure. By making a big splash and engaging people’s emotions, they become memorable and flirt with going viral on social media. However, they also make enemies of people that could have been customers. Personally, I would rather have my books make it into the hands of those I would disagree with. That way, I have a much better chance of persuading them to my point of view.

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