Is There a Message in Your Writing You Want Readers to Grasp?

Most writers claim they write only to entertain, and yet messages do creep into our books whether we will it or not. I don’t write to entertain but to write the stories I want to read, stories that no one else has written. And still, the messages are there: nothing is as it seems, we are not necessarily who we think we are, history did not necessarily happen the way we think it did, and what we see is not necessarily the truth. But all that was more of a side effect. Mostly I just wanted to write good stories with good characters that I would have loved to read.

Here are some messages that crept into other authors’ books. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Dale Cozort, Author of “Exchange

I’m not big on putting messages in fiction, but one snuck into Exchange. We live in what my daughter calls a ‘bubble-wrap’ society, one that is obsessed with reducing risk to the point of keeping us from doing a lot of things we want to do and/or need to do. How does that kind of society react to suddenly being in a world that is wilder and more dangerous than the Wild West ever was? A lot of us take the benefits of the bubble-wrapping for granted, but dream about getting away from the restrictions. Unfortunately, the risk reduction and the restrictions are often a package deal. I try not to hit people over the head with that message and you can read and enjoy Exchange without ever noticing it, but it is there.

From an interview with Stephen Prosapio, Author of “Ghosts of Rosewood Asylum”

Typically I like to have lessons and character growth. I like to show how characters make either correct or incorrect choices. Sometimes the difference between good and evil is simply taking the right or wrong action. I’ll let the readers take what morals they want from the story.

From an interview with J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

The January books are composed of a number of messages. In January’s Paradigm the reader learns that there are people in the world—men and women alike—who are not very nice, and that men don’t have a corner on the mean market. Men, too, can be hurt through a woman’s infidelity. One Hot January shows that no government is benign and that we must care about a world we will not see. While January’s Thaw is largely about redemption, that it’s never too late to close the door on the past and to live in the moment, for tomorrow.

From an interview with Benjamin Cheah, author of Eventual Revolutions

The real world is complicated. Don’t seek simple answers. Seek instead complete answers. Don’t be satisfied with what people tell you. Always look for the full picture, and discard everything that does not meet the test of logic and reason. Always strive towards a greater understanding of the world, without settling for dogma or over-simplicity. Every action has a consequence. And always remember that you are free – and with this freedom comes the necessity, burden and power of choice.

From an interview with Bonnie Toews, Author of “The Consummate Traitor”

Yes, I do demonstrate a message in all three of the novels in this trilogy. What I have observed at the crossroads of humanity is that victims of atrocities can never forget what they have endured, and their resulting bitterness perpetuates revenge. This convinces me that as long as victim and perpetuator seek retribution against the other, true peace can never be achieved. But, there is an answer: the ACT OF FORGIVENESS. We understand the idea of God’s forgiveness, but the act of forgiveness becomes meaningless if we cannot first forgive ourselves and then one another. To make a difference in world peace, victims and their perpetrators must forgive themselves before they can forgive one another and live in harmony.

Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?

Does Anyone Really Want to be Good? Do You?

There is no such thing as a bad driver. Ask people if they think they are good drivers, and they will all say yes. Why? Because we judge our driving ability by our strengths and values. If we think fast driving makes a good driver, and we drive fast, then we consider ourselves good drivers regardless of our discourtesy to other drivers or our lack of attention to possible hazards. If we think obeying every letter and number of traffic laws makes a good driver, and we obey the laws, then we consider ourselves good drivers even if our driving poses a risk to other drivers.

Of course, if you ask drivers if other drivers are good drivers, then there is no such thing as a good driver.

Goodness is the same way. We all consider ourselves to be good, but that’s because we judge goodness by what we do and what we value. If we think honesty makes a good person, and we scrupulously tell the truth no matter who we hurt, then we think we’re good. If we think adherence to religious doctrine or sexual mores makes a good person, and we adhere to those customs, then no matter what unkindnesses we commit, we consider ourselves good. If we think not murdering our horrible neighbors makes us good, and we refrain from inflicting bodily harm even though we believe the world would be a better place without them, then we consider ourselves good no matter what other havoc we might wreak.

Goodness, like good driving, isn’t as subjective as we think it is. Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and all the other virtues we wrinkle our noses at because they are old fashioned.

I hadn’t considered “goodness” until I needed a topic for a writing discussion and came across this quote from playwright Maxwell Anderson: “The story of a play must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.” A few hours later I found an article in the newspaper, a transcript of a Rosh Hashanah sermon by Dennis Prager in which he enumerates 13 obstacles to becoming a better person. (Supposedly, the purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is moral introspection: What kind of person am I, and how can I become a better person? This struck a chord with me, because these questions are the focus of my life right now.) The combination of these two writings gave me my discussion topic: The Not Quite Good vs. the Not So Evil.

Prager made a good point: most of us don’t want to be good. We want to be other things, such as happy, smart, attractive, healthy, successful. In today’s workplace especially, those old fashioned virtues such as kindness, generosity, integrity are pretty much an antithesis to any kind of success.

Although I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life and what I want to become, I never once considered “goodness” as a goal. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s even practical. It’s too nebulous. Perhaps I’ll settle for something more concrete, such as not killing my neighbors even when their music blasts my eardrums.

What about you? Do you want to be good?

The Not Quite Good vs. the Not So Evil

“The story must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.” — Maxwell Anderson, American playwright (Actually, he said, “The story of a play must be a conflict . . .” and that can lead to the first question of tonight’s discussion. Does a story/novel differ from a play in other ways besides simply the format?)

The best stories are, of course, conflicted, and internal conflict deepens one’s knowledge of a character and raises the stakes for the outcome of the story. But . . . does the conflict need to be between good and evil? If a character is battling it out internally between such disparate forces, then there’s a chance the story will end up being comic bookish and the character end up resembling Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

Perhaps it’s better for the internal conflict to be a bit narrower? Say between one’s need to do the right thing and one’s tendency to be selfish?

I just read an article that said most people don’t particularly want to be good. They’d rather devote their efforts to other things such as being happy, successful, smart, attractive, healthy. Sounds like the makings of a good conflict. Battling one of these urges in order to do something selfless would make a character more real than one who has to battle their evil nature, because who of us is truly evil? Most of us are thoughtless, selfish, petty, pettish, angry, given to telling small lies and committing small dishonest acts, none of which are evil. Just human.

According to that same article, goodness is about a person’s character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage. A story person with such qualities would seem shallow and uninteresting and too good to be true. On the other hand, some characters who are supposed to be on the side of good do as much bad as the characters who are supposed to be evil. In other words, in a fictional world, it’s okay to be evil as long as your intentions are good. That would make a good conflict, too — a battle between a character’s good intentions and what the character really does. But such a battle is still not a conflict between the forces of good and evil in the same person.

So, do you agree with Maxell Anderson? Do your characters have a massive internal conflict, or do their internal conflicts tend to be less dramatic? What are your characters internal conflicts? Does the internal conflict reflect or contrast the major conflict in the story? As for your villains — are they also conflicted but perhaps lose the battle to their less than stellar side?

If you’d like to discuss this topic live, you can find me at the group No Whine, Just Champagne on Gather.com on Thursday, October 15, 2011 at 9:00pm ET (8pm CT, 7pm MT, 6pm PT). Otherwise, we can just chat here.