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Marginal Notes

When You Really, Really Care

Lately I've had several clients come to me with the same problem--they want to make a point more than they want to tell a story. That's fine for essays, blogs, even non-fiction books, but fiction is not the best place to make an argument, not unless you want to join the ranks of propagandists. Of course, propaganda can sometimes change the world. Uncle Tom's Cabin brought the brutality of slavery to life in 1852 and inspired many to join the abolitionists and, later, the Union army. People fought and died because of that book. But today, kids are only likely to encounter it in history classes. No one's reading it for fun anymore.

On the other hand, Huck Finn also changed the world, undermining prejudice by introducing readers to Jim. Yet Twain's book is still read in literature classes. And for fun.

So what's the difference between propaganda and a novel that broadens your readers' minds?

Respect for your characters, for starters. The most effective way to open your readers to a new worldview is to immerse them in the lives of sympathetic people who live in that larger world. Dickens' readers came to care about the plight of poor children because they cared about Oliver Twist. Stephen Crane's readers turned against the horrors of war because they experienced them in The Red Badge of Courage. Emotional connections are a lot more likely to change minds than reasoned argument.

As soon as your characters start acting out of character to put your argument across - the moment they stop living and start preaching - you can kiss that emotional connection good-bye. After that, your readers may inadvertently be exposed to information - some people do read Francisco d'Anconia's pages-long lecture on the gold standard in Atlas Shrugged-- but they'll stop caring.

And respect your readers, especially the ones who disagree with you. They're who you're trying to win over. One reason Galileo faced the Inquisition was that, when he wrote his dialogue defending the heliocentric theory, he put the Pope's arguments in the mouth of a duffer named Simplicio. If you approach your story assuming that the people who don't agree with you must be ignorant, venal, or stupid, you're not going to portray them in a good light. Readers won't hang around to be insulted, so you wind up driving off everyone who disagrees with you and preaching to the choir.

You can avoid this trap by a simple act of imagination -- put yourself in the minds of people who think differently from you. Read what they've written, make their arguments for them, see the world from their point of view. Give their side a fair shake, and you'll be much more likely to win them over to your own, even if they really are ignorant, venal, or stupid. Galileo was right, after all.

One recent client had a main character who changed his political views mid-book to something closer to the client's views. The problem was that, before his conversion, the views that character held were self-evidently ridiculous. I'm sure my client didn't intend to set up a straw man - he was just misled by his passion for what he believed in. But after we worked to make the character's pre-conversion position more plausible, his conversion was a lot more convincing. And readers were more likely to change their minds with him.

Finally, remember that opening minds is often as valuable as changing them. Some years ago, a workshop participant was worried that her prologue, written from the point of view of an environmental activist, might alienate readers who disagreed with the character. I pointed out that, if she made her activist authentic and sympathetic, readers would understand her, even if they didn't agree with her.

It can be a lot of fun to get behind a literary pulpit and shred your opponents. But as any preacher can tell you, sermons rarely change people's minds. The best way to reach people with what you're trying to say is to forget the message. Just tell them a good story.