Saturday, June 14, 2008
I recently came across an amusing dissection of a message fantasy, and that inspired this post.
A “message novel” is one where the author’s political or social or religious stance takes precedence over the story. At worst, the characters can become mere mouthpieces for the author’s views, with the good guys preaching whatever ideology the author favors. The antagonists are therefore saddled with the opposing viewpoints, and are further handicapped by being foolish, ugly or cruel, so that the readers know that the opposing viewpoint is wrong wrong wrong. This is seldom pleasant to read, and even more seldom does it convert anyone to the author’s cause.
In some cases, writing a message story is expected. If a writer decides to submit to publishers of Christian inspirational fiction, for instance, the story would have to feature Christian themes and protagonists who uphold Christian ideals. There is most likely going to be a message here, and as long as the story is labelled accordingly, that’s fine. It will appeal to a certain audience, and readers who want something different will look elsewhere.
What I’m not so keen on are works of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy or horror – which are not so labelled but which are still message stories. If a novel is supposedly set in another world, but the good characters all talk about the equality of women while the villains are all misogynists, I’m not going to buy it. It’s going to be too evident that this world was constructed primarily to make an ideological point. And I’m a staunch feminist, which goes to show that even message stories which preach to the choir may end up losing choirgirls who want an interesting plot rather than a thinly disguised polemic. Many writers who try to send such a message often pick issues that readers are well aware of, and where the readers have usually made their minds up already.
Readers who don’t already start off with the same views as the author may be even less interested. That’s one reason I gave up on Dean Koontz’s newer books. I love his earlier work, but I lost interest when the villains became atheists and nihilists while the good guys were believers in the spiritual. Writers often have good intentions when they write message stories – they want to introduce readers to what they see as an admirable position or ideology – but readers rarely pick up novels in the hopes of being educated. They want to be entertained instead.
It’s possible to slip messages in under the radar, if an author is skilful and subtle and puts the story first, but the more removed from current reality the story is, the more difficult it is to insert a message. If a story is set fifty thousand years into the past, but the good people respect the environment and believe in marrying for love, it’s going to come off as a Disney film rather than a believable story. Modern issues don’t have much of a place in a fantasy land.
If an author absolutely wants to discuss these in a fantasy context, while not turning the readers off, the issues have to be geared to the context. No modern terms and no long speeches about equality or tolerance. The people on both sides need to be fully developed and to have good reasons for holding the views they do. Readers can tell when the author is trying to manipulate them (trying, because there’s rarely success in these situations).
One reason why authors might not want to present both sides of the issue equally is because this might lead to sympathy for the other side. I saw this for myself when I was writing Dracolytes. As you’ve probably guessed from the title, the story is set in a land where fanatical religious fundamentalists worship dragons – but since the heroine was a Dracolyte, I had to treat her religion as fairly and attractively as I could. There had to be a good reason for her to uphold this religion when the hero (an atheist) took a crack at it.
It wasn’t easy, but it was surprisingly fun. The religion turned out to be appealing in some ways, and I enjoyed writing scenes where the heroine prayed when she needed guidance or where she defended her beliefs. There’s no pleasure in constructing a straw man and then knocking it down. But there’s a lot to be said for presenting both sides of the issue and showing how each side just might have something to learn from the other.
My next post will deal with some books which were blatant message novels - but which I enjoyed a great deal.
To be continued…