One thing that fictional stories are exceptionally good at is exploring different sides of an argument or issue, giving a well-rounded treatment of it, and then coming to rest (more or less subtly) on one side or another. Of course, the potential for good exploration of issues does not mean that all novels explore issues well. Many authors abuse this power of the novel, making a book heavy-handed at best, and at worst, a thinly disguised essay with flat characters and trite plots. How can authors steer clear of these traps, without giving up the unique ability of a novel to wrestle with and comment on important topics? Here are three tips:
- Give good arguments on both sides of a topic
One common mistake that authors make is to only present good arguments on one side of a topic, or to only explore an issue from one character’s point of view, and to thus essentially silence other viewpoints. Let’s imagine that you want to argue through your story that wisdom is more important than book-learning. This is an interesting argument, and one that could be explored and taken in many different directions in a book. An obvious, but mistaken, way to present the topic would be the “fairy tale approach.” The mother of the main character, for instance, might tell him why it is important to always act wisely. Two of the main character’s friends might then behave foolishly, though they are both intelligent, well-educated sorts, and get themselves into bad situations. The main character, then, would repeat to himself his mother’s advice, act on her instructions, and find himself magically rewarded with health, wealth, and a happily ever after ending. This is not a satisfying story for anyone older than six or seven years of age.
Straw man arguments, weak arguments, or no arguments at all on the “other side” of an issue leave mature readers frustrated. “But what about all the times that practical common sense isn’t enough?” they ask. “What about the advances of science, saving lives by rebutting old wives’ tales that were seen as practical wisdom?” To combat this problem, authors must write scenes, characters, and dialog to show the best arguments of the “other side.” Only by showing the main character’s friends putting their book learning to good use and still failing due to a lack of wisdom can a good argument in favor of wisdom be made.
- Give all arguments from complex, preferably sympathetic, characters
The second mistake the authors often make is to give the good guys all the arguments for the “right” side of an argument, and the bad guys all the arguments for the “wrong” side. If you have a realistic, sympathetic protagonist proclaiming his views, and then a tin-pot dictator in a black cape arguing against him, even the “other side’s” best arguments will fall artificially flat because of the negative light in which they are being presented. A powerful way of playing with audience’s perceptions, actually, is to make a main character be relatively neutral in an issue, and give some good, correct points to your antagonistic character to say. They may be slightly wrong, and the main character may have to figure this out for himself, but by having truth and insight found in all characters’ speech and actions (to some degree), an author can force readers to pay closer attention to the argument itself without being swayed as much by who is talking.
Alternatively, you might choose to not have an antagonist be the figurehead for either of the sides of the argument you’re wanting to make. Give the two opposing arguments to a main character’s two allies, or have the main character disagree with his best friend. Either way, give convincing arguments on both sides of the issue to sympathetic characters, and readers won’t be given the option of shutting their brains off as they consider what you’re saying.
- Be nuanced in your conclusion
As an author, you have the ability to be as black-and-white or shades-of-gray as you want in your book’s conclusion. You might choose to have a strong, resounding victory of one worldview or belief system, with an overall story plot and a main character arc that both show the triumph of one way of approaching the world, while the antagonist represents the other way of approaching the world and is soundly defeated. If you go this route, however, you risk charges of being blatant and heavy-handed, or even “preachy” with your theme.
A more nuanced approach to the issue, created through the use of multiple scenes, can give readers a more complete and satisfying treatment of an argument and a more powerful conclusion. One advantage of the novel form is that you don’t have to depend on just one scene to tell readers what you believe about a particular issue. Instead, throughout a book, you can show different characters approaching the same broad issue from multiple perspectives in multiple situations. Sometimes, one approach may prevail, while other times, the other might end up being the right to use in a given situation. The amount of “wins” you give to each side of the issue will help influence readers to favor one side or the other. As an author, you may choose to have a 90-10% split for a definitive “this is right!” message, or for a more ambivalent ending, write something closer to a 51-49% division. Personally, I have tended in the past toward about a 75-25% goal in my writing – enough to show depth to an issue, but with enough weight of plot evidence on one side to make it clear to readers what my conclusion is.
What good books have you read recently that make a strong (i.e. more towards 100-0) or an ambivalent (i.e. more towards 50-50) argument about an issue? How did these authors make their points well (or poorly)?