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On Messages in Fiction

I’ve been reading a fair few books lately which were designed to have a “message” – that is, to convince the reader of a certain point of view, using fiction as a medium for the author’s voice. Message fiction and I don’t usually get along: I have never enjoyed being told what to do, and most of the time the “message” part tends to get in the way of the “fiction” part, at least in my opinion. Even if I agree with what the author’s trying to say, it’s annoying to have someone hitting me over the head with it too obviously, and the book often becomes like a puppet show, with the characters and plot serving the message instead of the other way around.

There are always messages in fiction, of course, even if they’re only implicit ones. In fact, most such messages aren’t obvious. They tell us things about life, about the author’s understanding of the world, and often convince us to change our minds about things without ever having to come out and say it. And for the most part, I prefer this kind of novel. I want to be able to read and enjoy the book without being able to see the strings or to think too closely about who’s controlling them. Still, there are some authors who manage to pull it off, and sometimes there are messages that need to be written.

So how do you go about talking to your audience without alienating them or turning your novel into a puppet show?

1. Let the characters do the talking.

By which I mean, think about whether or not they would believe or agree with the perspective you want to give them, and give them a reason to do so. If you must, have them disagree with this position and learn to change their mind. Character growth can often be a great way of getting the audience invested in the book, and if they’re invested, they’re most likely going to be open to what you have to say. Be careful, however. Any change in viewpoint must be natural, necessary and nuanced. It’s highly unlikely for someone to be converted to The Right Way of Thinking (aka the author’s opinion) with nothing more than a slight, well-intentioned nudge in the right direction. Your characters will need to try, fail, and sometimes succeed only incompletely, or the journey is unlikely to make a satisfying read.

2. Don’t make the message your only reason for telling the story.

Every author has something they want people to take away from their book. Sometimes, this will just be this person is an amazing writer, but most of the time a writer tends to have a theme that becomes their message to the reader: what they want them to learn, or to think about, both while reading the book and after they close the covers and walk away. Ideally, the theme is obvious to the observant, but does not dominate the novel — it’s one element of the plot, not the sole reason for its existence. One of the failings of message fiction, therefore, can be that it focuses too much on the message, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. A novel which insists on telling you what it’s all about over and over again shows you its puppet strings — hell, it shows you the puppeteer, and just like that the magic is gone. Instead of a whole new world of interesting thoughts, feelings, and characters, what you hold in your hand is a literary Trojan horse, smuggling an authorial screed dressed up as fiction.

3. Be original.

Originality is at times the bane of a writer’s life and to be fair, its importance can be overstated. That being said, message fiction in particular is one area where you can almost guarantee that someone else has written about it before. Women should be treated equally? Done. Racism is wrong? Done. Nuclear proliferation is the only way to secure peace? Hell, that’s been done too. So obviously I don’t mean that your message has to be something nobody has ever heard before. But I do think that doing some research is a wise idea. If there are some tropes which recur too often when associated with your particular message — such as bullying and tolerance in novels about teens, for example — you run the risk of losing the reader’s interest as your ideas won’t really stand out from the crowd. Riding on the coattails of an emerging trend (ahem, vampires, I’m looking at you) isn’t going to cut it for the discerning reader: you have to add your own twist to the approach, or they’re going to you tune out, and they’ll tune out your message too.

Ultimately, I think message fiction fills a necessary niche in the literary world, but I can’t say it’s one of my favourite things to read. Once you make a plot a vehicle for something other than itself, particularly a political thought or idea, you run the risk of succumbing to literary tokenism, in which a character is only black/female/gay/whatever to make a point and thereby comes to stand in for all other people with similar characteristics, rather than being treated as an individual in their own right. It is important, therefore, to remember to ask yourself: do I need to write it this way? Is this the only way I can get my message across? Because, sometimes, if you have a point to make it can be better to just go for broke and write a creative essay instead. That way, everyone knows they’re being invited to a puppet-show and will be prepared to compliment you on your masterful pulling of strings, rather than disappointed at seeing through the illusion.

Sarah Reese


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