I’ve done one rant on this to a certain extent, the beliefs and prejudices rant, which discusses how to avoid, for example, making it seem as if you have Designated Misogynistic Bastards in your feminist fantasy. This one includes some new points and expands on ones raised there.
1) Practice “negative capability.” This phrase comes from a letter John Keats wrote, and I think it expresses an ideal I’ve tried to repeat before better than the words empathy or sympathy:
“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
One reason I am wary of books with messages in them is precisely because most message-arguing authors are not content to leave the message “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” They aren’t content to let the story subtly argue for their message, or indirectly promote their theme, or do anything but include explicit scenes of characters debating and offering adages and proverbs. Their universes are usually unequivocally moral. One side will win, and only one side. If an ambiguity appears, such as whether a traitor is right, it will be resolved before the end (usually, such an ambiguity is never even apparent, because if a traitor is spying for the good side he’s right and if he’s spying for the evil side he’s bad—never mind the double standard).
This part is echoed in all the other suggestions I make here: Let the story carry your message. Don’t patch in a scene where a converted character wails to the sky about how wrong he was and how right the promoter of a particular religion has always been. Don’t include the Sexist Scene where a woman gives a man a tongue-lashing about his sexism, including such
Spoilers for Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign follow:
This book includes a female character who gets a sex change so that she can inherit her dead brother’s Count title and keep his District from the disreputable heir. This severely freaks out one of the major characters, Ivan, who had planned to propose to him while he was still a woman. Ivan’s never completely comfortable around the new Lord Dono until the very end, when Dono’s cousin sends thugs after him to try and amputate his new, um, assets. This doesn’t suddenly reconcile Ivan to his disappointment. Instead, he thinks of how much such a trick would hurt him and how dirty it is, and decides to help Lord Dono mainly because his cousin is such a rat bastard—and because he now feels a common cause with him as another male. No glorious bolt from the blue, but a twist that serves both story and characterization. That’s how it should be done.
2) Use convincing “wrong” arguments. Fantasy “debates” on matters of ethical principle are often screamingly clichéd, but when the authors do write them well, it’s almost always the “right” side that gets the good words. The author uses good metaphors, good correspondences, logic, pragmatism, and high ideals. (This doesn’t always work as well as they think it does. See point 5). By contrast, the “wrong” side is often sure to sound dumb, use bad logic or no logic, not be able to answer simple questions, and, in the worst cases, think of themselves as evil. Oh, and their voices are ugly, while the good side has speakers with voices like “silver” or “music” or “bells.”
Yes, of course the author is giving the two sides equal chances of seeming true, and the people who believe in the “wrong” principles a good reason to do so. And any moment now I will ascend heavenward on wings of pretty purple light.
Give both sides convincing arguments, for gods’ sakes. Why has this evil leader risen to power? It can’t be because all his followers are morons. Why does this woman want to cut down the elven forest, and why do people follow her? It can’t be because all of them have the woman’s hot, burning personal hatred for elves. Why is this debate even a debate at all? Because the Author Says So.
Do it right. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Darkest Road, the “wrong” speaker among the dwarves is actually the stronger and more convincing. He’s an artist and uses beautiful words, which Kay describes rather than representing. Along with the portrayal of a dwarven culture that is more than “short and likes ale,” Kay’s fantasy is rare for putting the two sides, however briefly, on an equal footing.
3) Use tactics appropriate to literature, not sermons, to promote your message. I see a priest character in fantasy. I become instantly and extremely suspicious. I lurk, waiting for the moment when the author has the priest give a sermon. I predict that the sermon will not be about an ethical issue of importance to the world or the story, but an ethical issue of importance to the author and our own world.
I am right 99% of the time.
Just because you have a priest character is no reason to make him a preacher. Not all religions use sermons. Not all religions try to convert other people. Priests in your world might have a bad track record, or this one might become a hypocrite, which doesn’t give other people a reason to listen to him.
Instead of having the priest preach, take him through a character arc. An individual’s story of lost faith and redemption—or, hell, the character becoming an atheist who isn’t OMG!evil!—is 99% of the time more fascinating than a canned sermon we’ve all heard before. (See point 7). Show the priest developing as a character rather than your mouthpiece. Give him friends, lovers, a family, a life. Let him struggle with issues that have to do with other people and not just religion. Let him be wrong. Let him lose, make mistakes, fail, and then get back on track. Let him face the grand truths of the universe and decide which one he wants to believe.
And no. I don’t care what your religion is. I don’t care how strongly you feel about saving souls from hell, or saving the earth, or getting people to worship your gods. If you choose to write in a fantasy mode, you have a responsibility to that mode. Abandoning the fantasy for the sake of preaching is not being responsible to that mode. If you want to write a sermon, write one. If you want to write a pamphlet, write one. If the fact that this is a story you’re writing doesn’t matter at all—if the essential content is that sermon you want to put in there, and the characters and the world and the plot could go fuck themselves for all you care—then you have no business writing a fantasy. I wish you good luck in turning your computer into a soapbox, but I do ask that you don’t pretend the fictional part of the endeavor matters to you.
Write this like a story. Use character development, multiple viewpoints, irony, drama, dialogue, action, exposition, the weather, the history, the setting, backstory, and so on to show the message. Otherwise, there’s just no hope.
4) Try introducing contradictions and ambiguities into your major theme. If you have a strong enough theme or message, then it’s probably present in several subplots or several character arcs. (I really hope it’s not the whole thing, personally, because I hate a story that’s one-note, the same way I hate a fantasy where every secondary character only exists to make comments about the hero even when he’s off-stage). Do you have to bring every one of them to a clean and happy resolution that shows off the right “message” and declares that the right side has won?
In five words: no, no, and fuck, no.
Say you’ve taken as your major theme that good old chestnut, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (See point 7). You have one character who has deliberately tried to leave his past behind, only to have it bite him in the ass; one character who ignores her family’s warnings and marries an entirely unsuitable person anyway; one character who makes the same mistake an ancestor did and propels a continent into war; and one character who has forgotten the prophecy and is stumbling blind through the dark.
You don’t have to have them all tie up with the character in the question recognizing the importance of learning from the past. In some cases, this makes for a cheap happy ending; perhaps the character who propelled the continent into war is forgiven after not much more than some hand-wringing, because, of course, who cares about lives lost, what really matters is that she learned her lesson! Other times, it’s simply impossible with the character as defined. A character who manages to succeed despite the lack of a prophecy shouldn’t suddenly be saddled with knowledge of it ¾ of the way through the story and the implication that she only succeeded because of it, not because of her own hard work.
Follow your story first. Leave some resolutions up in the air. Perhaps the character who married the unsuitable person has learned from her mistake, but there’s not much more indication that she’ll be happy with her new husband. Perhaps the character who tried to leave his dark past behind has it catch up with him, but this time, instead of just scurrying back when his old flame calls on him, he ends the story by rejecting her possessiveness and standing on his own. Perhaps the character who started the war knows that learning her lesson is just the beginning, and it will take a much longer time before she can forgive herself. Make it interesting to read and true to the characters as defined before you make it true to the theme. It’s great when they dovetail, but when they don’t, I say go with the characters first.
5) Remember that good ideals =! a good person. You know one old chestnut of a theme that doesn’t show up in fantasy often? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
In a fantasy world, having good ideals is often enough. It doesn’t matter if, say, the one leader that everyone depends on to win the war goes into mortal danger and nearly gets himself killed. (That one is so going into the “creating a good leader” rant). He was being brave, so it doesn’t matter! Or he was trying to help people, so it doesn’t matter!! Or he thought he heard his dead mother calling him, so it doesn’t matter!!! The characters who give him a tongue-lashing usually break down and admit that he’s right no more than a few pages later.
Also, any nasty consequences that might pave the road to hell are immediately reversed. To return to the example above, if the leader endangered his life by going into the goblin camp, then he’s sure to bring back some valuable information that he would never have heard otherwise. No reckless action is a waste of time (as long as it’s being performed by whatever character is expressing the “right” side of the author’s theme). No action that might cost other people time and energy and even lives is a waste of time (again, as long as it’s being performed for the “right reasons;” the leaders who are non-feminist or non-environmentalist or of a different religion are blasted for sacrificing their men). Inhumanity in every guise can show up, and it’s not inhumanity, because the characters suffering “understand.”
Please understand your way off a tall building.
Seriously, just because a character has ideals does not make him good. Just because someone believes as you do does not make them right. And just because someone believes differently than you do (or your character does) does not make him a moron, immoral, or evil. Understand this, and the fantasy genre, as well as your story, will be better off.
6) “And love is more cruel than lust.” This phrase is from this poem, which will not surprise anyone who knows about my Swinburne obsession. It concisely expresses an attitude that fantasy could use a lot more of, especially since fantasy regularly is supposed to include tragedy and sacrifice.
Note “supposed to include.” When sacrifices do happen, they are often reversed, or romanticized so much it starts sounding as though no sacrifice happened at all (this is what happens with all those “They died for a greater cause!” speeches after a fantasy war, and especially when everyone agrees with that), or portrayed as not regrettable (who really cares if a peasant man died in the saving of the world? He wasn’t the heroine chosen by the Goddess! He wasn’t even female!). Something done in good faith never has bad consequences.
This is somewhat the same point as 5, but there, it’s the characters’ intentions that make everything all right. Here, it’s the way the author portrays the consequences, or, far more often, the lack of them.
Allow love to be more cruel than lust sometimes. Allow death to endure that is regretted, not swept away in the triumphal coronation. Allow characters to be changed, distorted by the weight of pain, not going unmarked by the tragedy. Allow the story to have happened and the themes to have been fulfilled with a cost. Once you have the cake, you can’t eat it anymore.
7) Recognize when the message is not one people need to hear. Usually, the problem with this is the wording. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” or “Being sexist is wrong” or “Being racist is bad” or “Follow your heart” are, at this point, so banal and obvious that it’s really hard to write a story with these words at the heart and have it turn out original. When a character actually makes a declaration like these in-story, it often breaks apart the story world immediately, and reveals the little author behind the curtain.
One suggestion is to change the wording. Perhaps someone in your story can say, “My mother always said that those who fled from history would wind up being stabbed in the back,” and this may be original enough—especially if used as a continuing metaphor—to let your story escape the cliché trap.
Another is to make the theme more complicated than this. Why is being sexist wrong? Why is being racist bad? Why are those who never learn from history doomed to repeat it? Wouldn’t following your heart cause problems sometimes? Show what these mean, explore the “whys,” and don’t just trust that the audience will know why. The presentation of these attitudes as gospel truth is the precise reason that they have become clichéd. Not many people bother to argue them anymore, so characters who do come off looking like morons, and the story remains simple and shallow.
My preferred method is to allow your characters to be themselves, and so show the working out of this theme in their own lives, not just lives that stand in for Everyman, or for Sexist-Now-Converted Man #20111. Show us how Jennarca learns to follow her heart. Make it a story about Jennarca, not just about general heart-following. Show us how Gofor the Bold learns that that reckless young woman who led his company into disaster years ago is not representative of her sex; she was stupid, but not all women are. (And don’t insist that that one woman wasn’t stupid, either. See point 5). Take Laurel Honeyhair, an elf smugly convinced of the superiority of her race, and make her attracted to a goblin. The working-out of that little conundrum will be infinitely more interesting than YASOWRIB (Yet Another Speech On Why Racism Is Bad).
The marriage rant shall be next.