Messages in Fiction

I recently listened to the spectacular podcast StoryWonk Daily, which has been my greatest source of writerly inspiration and crafty insight since I discovered it about half a year ago.
The hosts Lani and Alastair discussed gender issues in writing last week, and in episode 197 − The World Vs Men And Women − Lani got very passionate about messages in fiction, arguing that you should never include them. She most likely meant that you should not preach to your readers or be anvilicious, but she ruled out the possibility that messages could be integrated into stories gracefully, organically. To me, expressing what you believe in and dropping anvils are two very different things and I‘m as passionate about achieving the former as Lani is about avoiding the latter.

I think that our understanding of the world, our values and biases and unquestioned assumptions will always shine through in our writing, and that the stories we as a culture tell each other have an impact on our society. How big that impact is, I don‘t know, and being a writer, I‘m likely to overstate it.

That doesn‘t mean I will have my characters get on a soapbox and preach − In fact Lani herself gave an excellent example of what works much better: She talked about the gay and transgendered characters in her books (which I haven‘t read yet) and that she included them without making a fuss about their sexuality or gender, without portraying them as jokes or freaks, and most importantly, that she made them rounded characters instead of clichés.

I think there is a common concern amongst writers that readers will not get the message if they are not explicitly told what it is. But they do. They are usually a lot smarter than you think, and will not thank you for patronising them.

As almost always when it comes to good fiction, the writing rule Show, don‘t Tell applies. Don‘t tell me that friendship is important, just show me how little Maggie defeats the evil narwhale by realising just in time that she has to get over her pride and ask Sandra and Robin for help even though she bragged to them earlier about not needing it.

If you‘re having trouble with this, just think about Terry Pratchett, and how he manages to tell us profound things about the human nature while simultaneously spinning one hell of a yarn. He never compromises his story, because his messages and yarn are intermingled, are one.

To give you another example: Zoe from the TV show Firefly is a very capable, tough and strong woman. We know this because of her actions, and it would really ruin the effect if another character turned their head towards the camera and intoned: „You see, kids, women can be capable too!“ I think it’s a good rule of thumb that you shouldn‘t have a character say anything just because you want your audience to know it. Also, it would assume that the concept of a strong woman is somehow new or daring or unusual, which would undermine the message that strength is completely normal for women.

Whether you are a writer or create other media, just the simple choice of which characters to include and how to portray them can have a huge impact. A fellow StoryWonk listener (Hi Jenni!) linked to this article by Ms. Twixt about girls and women in TV shows, and the statistics are pretty grim:
Less than one third of the characters are female, a number that hasn‘t changed since 1946. Likewise, only 19,5% of the workforce on screen are female, even though in reality, that number is 50%. In crowds, girls and women only account for 17% of the people.

The article concludes, „Other research GDIGM cites finds that girls who are exposed to more media have the feeling that they are fewer choices in life, and that, on average, the more media boys watch the more sexist their outlook.“

I‘m sure most television writers and producers don‘t set out to paint a sexist, reactionary picture of the world or want to endorse that women are so inferiour to men that the main reason to show them at all is to serve as eye-candy for straight men. Still, this is what most of them are doing, and if they don‘t like it, they had better include as many strong female characters as males, and not sexualise every single one of them.

I could probably make similar observations and arguments about people of colour, queer, trans and genderqueer people and every other marginalised group. Sure, you could fall into tokenism, but to be honest, I as a trans genderqueer would much rather have a dozen token trans sidekicks to identify with in the books I read and the movies I watch than be treated in the media like I don‘t even exist.

PS: StoryWonk are just celebrating their 200th episode! I‘m getting on my trusty old soapbox now to tell you to go forth and listen in on the fun!


5 Antworten auf „Messages in Fiction“


  1. 1 Alastair 05. Oktober 2011 um 23:31 Uhr

    Hi Nils!

    Great post. As you know from the show, I‘m generally more accepting of theme and message in storytelling than Lani is, but you‘re right: her main objection is that it’s usually done so horribly that it breaks the story. For me, there’s nothing wrong with writing with a theme in mind, as long as you do respectfully — and if you ever have to make a choice between hitting the theme and keeping the story strong, you have to choose the story.

    That said, I do think there’s a difference between writing with a message and simply illustrating the world you want to see, or characters who exhibit your values. I don‘t think that Joss Whedon wrote Firefly to explicitly make the point that Girls Can Be Awesome Too; rather, I think that’s just how he sees the world, and it influences his fiction accordingly. Obviously, the difference between influence and explicit intent in simply on of degree, but it helps avoid those sledge-hammer moments.

    Again, great post. Thanks for being such an awesome part of the StoryWonk community!

  2. 2 Alpha Reader 08. Oktober 2011 um 14:47 Uhr

    Hi Nils,

    this article is so great, I‘m a little angry at you for stealing the words I would have liked to write ;)

    It’s so true, we are ALWAYS sending out messages, in fact I‘m sure it is impossible to communicate anything, and certainly not a story, without including messages about values and basic assumptions about the human nature. So it’s best to examine what kind of messages you create and to make conscious choices instead of repeating really old and degrading gender stereotypes by basically saying: „All humans are male [white, straight, beautiful, able-bodied, middle-class …], except if they have to fill an unmanly role (be passive, weak and/or need rescue) and/or be romantic interest for a man.

    I‘m currently trying to start coming up with characters (and a plot and setting and world…) for a sci-fi story and it feels weird and even „unbalanced“ to me to make about 80% of the humans People of Colour or Black, even though that is about the current percentage in the real present day world, too. Except not in germany, you‘d have to look at the big picture.
    So what I‘m trying to say is, even if you know that about 50% of all people are women, 10% are gay and only 20% are white (my numbers might be really wrong, I‘m not sure, they‘re just examples) and you consciously try to represent that in your fiction, it is still hard to do. It might feel like overdoing it, because we‘re all so used to the all-straight-white-male cast with some token characters thrown in here and there. A fair representation of marginalised people (I thought about using the word „minorities“, but of course neither women nor PoC nor Black people are minorities – except on screen and in most books…) will stick out. I‘m so totally willing to do that! With glee, even. I‘m sure there are lots of people hungering for a book that does this, and I‘m one of them. And if some readers stumble a bit it might just get them thinking about all this stuff, so that’s an extra bonus there.

    At any rate, I‘m certainly NOT writing a book that repeats the kind of messages that make girls think they have fewer choices in life than boys and boys be more sexist than those who have less media access.

  3. 3 Meeresbande 10. Oktober 2011 um 12:23 Uhr

    Hey, guck mal, dieser Artikel wurde hier http://antirep278a.blogsport.de/ verlinkt!

  4. 4 Nilsander 27. Oktober 2011 um 23:25 Uhr

    Hi Alastair, thanks so much for your comment! I‘m sorry it took me so long to clear it — I‘m new to blogging and didn‘t realise that my settings required me to clear comments before they could appear here. I was wondering why nobody commented!

    So thanks for your thoughts! I agree, and I do think that Lani and I are in accord 90% of the way.

  5. 5 nilsander 27. Oktober 2011 um 23:28 Uhr

    Meeresbande: <3

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