Historically, storytelling was often used as a tool to convey religious, moral, or even political messages. Stories made concepts easy to pass along to others, especially when not everyone could read.
But today, we no longer tell stories for the purpose of conveying morals. This doesn’t mean that books today never have morals, but it does mean that the publishing industry expects the story to stand on its own merit.
Some unpublished novels are obviously written to convey a moral message. If you’re writing such a novel, you know who you are. But many writers have subplots, scenes, or even just small moments where morals take center stage. Sometimes this is a great thing. For example, Harry Potter touches on slavery with the house elves.
But almost everyone agrees that slavery is wrong. The problem arises when the moral being conveyed is not accepted by the bulk of the target readership. For example, topics like gun control, the death penalty, and the “correct” religion can make readers bristle.
So whether the message is the point of your story or plays a minor role, let’s take a look at how a moral can be conveyed without alienating or offending readers.
Be Entertaining First
As a fiction writer, your job first and foremost is to be entertaining. Readers want to pick up your novel and have a great time reading it. Note that “entertaining” doesn’t mean “fun.” There are lots of books that are sad or suspenseful but they are still entertaining. A moral should not be a replacement for an entertaining plot. If readers don’t pick up on the moral of the story, the story still should be captivating. And if readers pick up on the moral but don’t agree with it, that should not ruin the reading experience.
Messages feel less forceful when a novel is set in an exciting fantasy world or alternate history. Fantasy allows the reader to spot the moral message and apply it to their own lives (if they choose) without feeling as if the novel is condemning or judging them. A fantasy world is an easy way to “soften” a message, but it’s certainly not the only way.
Focus on Character
Let’s say you want to convey the message that violence is always wrong. You might explore a lot of hot button issues like war and the death penalty, but since this is a novel and not political commentary, you should do so in a tight character-focused way. For example, perhaps your story is about John who is on death row for murder, but he has cleaned up his life and wants a second chance.
This story can explore what it’s like to be on death row, how some people can change, and that perhaps John doesn’t deserve to die. If the focus is kept tight on John, the reader can root for this particular character even if they don’t agree with the message as a whole. It’s also easier to change the reader’s mind when the message develops naturally from the character and circumstances.
Present Both Sides Fairly
The worst thing you can do is present the opposing side of an issue as if they are ignorant, mean, or wrong. If you’re writing about an issue that’s important to you, you want your opinion to be respected. Those who believe the opposite as you would also like their opinions to be respected. Demonizing the opposition will cause the reader to dig in their feet against you rather than glide through the novel enjoying the ride.
Don’t Get Preachy
Nobody likes to be preached at by a book they picked up for entertainment. Long sections of narration explaining the obvious correctness of your opinion will pull the reader out of the story. It’s tough to take the world and the characters seriously when the writer’s objective in writing the story is so clear.
Avoid Generalized Statements
This is a good policy for all writers in all circumstances. When we lump groups of people together, we tend to simplify and homogenize them. We know that people are very diverse even within tight groups but we tend to still lump people together by race, gender, age, occupation, religion, or political affiliation and then we make broad statements about the entire group. Some generalized statements may seem relatively benign while others are more outwardly offensive, but both types of generalizations should be avoided.
Don’t Use Characters as Your Mouthpiece
Your characters should feel like individuals with logical and cohesive personalities. As soon as the character starts talking about a moral issue, it’s very likely they will begin to feel like a mouthpiece. Make sure what your character says feels authentic. Avoid having characters monologue about the virtues of their opinion unless it truly fits with their personality. If it doesn’t fit, readers will know that it’s you speaking rather than the character.
It’s Not Always a Good Idea to Write What You Know
Writers are often instructed to “write what you know” but this isn’t always a good idea. If you feel very strongly about a particular message, it’s very easy for the book to become uneven or heavy handed. If you get very angry when thinking about the opposing viewpoint, that anger may be too difficult to disguise in your writing.
Conveying a message can be done in a positive and fair way, but not everyone is at a place where they can do that. If you’re writing to get revenge or to prove that you’re right, you will likely struggle to handle the subject matter in a constructive way.
While stories built around morals have fallen out of vogue, it’s still possible to write a novel that conveys a message that’s important to you. The key is to be entertaining first and foremost, to allow your characters to act naturally, and to present both sides in a fair way.
Determine whether there is a moral or message in your novel (big or small). If there is, continue to the questions below. If there isn’t, please spend some time offering critiques to your fellow Boot Campers!
- Is the moral of the story shown/demonstrated rather than preached?
- Does the character always speak in a way that is authentic to their personality and beliefs?
- Is the opposing side presented in a way that is fair rather than demonizing?
Discussion Question (please discuss in the comments below)
Have you ever read a novel that pushed its message or moral too hard?
9 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #10: Morals and Messages”
I’ve read a couple of Christian Fiction novels that were heavy handed in their approach to anything or anyone in the story who wasn’t either a Christian or someone on the fence who winds up accepting Christ by the end of the book. Don’t get me wrong, the book offered a good story overall but I did take exception to the idea that transcendental meditation is a tool for Satan to use to warp impressionable minds. Christian Fiction holds its own subset in literature and many of its authors fall into the trap of over simplifying the struggle human beings have in accepting Christ by reducing it to “the devil made me do it” vs. “God’s in charge.” Both Frank Peretti (Piercing the Darkness) and Jerry Jenkins (The Left Behind series) are masterful story tellers and the books they’ve written are fun and, for Christian readers, inspirational. I’m just not certain any of them would bring anyone else to Christ for having read them.
As an author and a Christian, I’d like to write for the Christian Fiction subset too but I’d like to produce a book that can be enjoyed by everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. In the meantime, I’ll try to make certain I don’t beat anyone over the head with my message of moral superiority. LOL
First of all, well said, Lori (above).
Ellen again has made me think about what I’m trying to do, and I’m concerned that I’ve become “preachy” in a few places. I need to revise, getting rid of those instances. Overall, I think I’ve handled the moral stances fairly, but I do need to be careful. I’m not trying to write something that’ll “bring others to Christ,” rather something that’ll hopefully help others see that they can struggle with their belief system and still be “victorious.”
Like Ellen and Lori, I want to write a story that can be enjoyed by all.
The topic that I’m working with is parental abuse, so it’s not that I’m doing it consciously, but I might be demonizing the other side…? I will try to present the other side without trying to excuse it or ‘burn them alive’ so to speak.
One thing you might try Dean, is to take each character separately and look at them from the point of view of their goals and motivations (refer to this year’s Novel Boot Camp #2: Creating Deep Realistic Characters). Nobody starts out dreaming of the day they can become a parent and freely abuse their children, even if they are themselves being abused. Yet, statics (and personal interviews I’ve conducted with people) show that often victims grow up to abuse their children too. Something happened somewhere along the way to either anesthetize them to the pain they were causing or to justify it for themselves. Your challenge will be to explore that and mine that information for useable tools for your craft. By putting as much effort into your antagonist’s goals and motivations as your protagonist’s, you will create a deeper story. I’m definitely not advocating for you to justify the abuse, by any means, but if we can see even a glimpse behind the curtain of their evil and then step back in shock and horror to see what they are doing to their own child then the horror of that act will be magnified and your message made just that much clearer. Not because you preached it but because you presented us with the full picture.
Good luck with your novel, Dean. -PEACE-
very helpful comment, Lori.I think that´s the right way to approach the subject…
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
Even while I agree with her philosophy, I was surprised by how 2-dimensional her characters were. I skipped the entire chapter when John Galt made his big speech because it was completely unnecessary. She had already made her point loud and clear.
I don’t object to reading a piece of philosophical literature, even when the philosophy is not shared by the majority. I don’t mind being in the minority (used to it by now), but the story still needs to be a good story and the characters need to be solid.
This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti
It just went out of its way, non-stop, to show how evil eastern Religions are, and even meditation, describing all of that as some demonic super-highway, making it effortless for demons to posses a person. I read it as a teenager as I lived in a Christian home, all my friends and family were Christians This book was so over the top with fictionalized theology that, instead of cementing Christian theology for me, it sort of made it curl at the corners in my mind and started me thinking “is any of this Christian stuff really real? when it’s hyperbolic-to-the-extreme like this, it makes it seem so ridiculous that i should believe it.”
The book I’m writing is about a young man who is a pastor obeying, what he believes is God’s personal mission for him… leave his isolated town and go into a post-apocalyptic America and spread the Gospel. He finds that nobody knows anything about Jesus, or the Bible, so he has his work cut out for him… I loved this “Morals and Messages” article, i really got to think a lot about my main character, and reflect on what he really believes, vs my personal views affecting how he acts and what he believes.
Well, as I see it, most of agent and political thrillers during the times of cold war have had that tendency to push their morals into the reader. Everything was painted black and white, and of course, the West had always the right view on things, while the East has been demonized …
– Oh my. Parallels to actual developments give me the creeps…
Chickinwhite, I’m still laughing as I write this. Parallels to current evens give me the creeps too. Spot on.
Oh, how I yearn for the days of yesteryear when we all respected each other’s cultures, creeds and lifestyles. Oh, wait, that never happened. Darn! -PEACE-