Part of a Swinburne poem that makes me smile, “The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell” (a parody of Tennyson’s poem “The Higher Pantheism”):
One, who is not, we see: but one, whom we see not, is:
Surely this is not that: but that is assuredly this.
What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under:
If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder.
Doubt is faith in the main: but faith on the whole is doubt:
We cannot believe by proof: but could we believe without?
Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover:
Neither are straight lines curves: yet over is under and over.
Two and two may be four: but four and four are not eight:
Fate and God may be twain: but God is the same thing as fate.
Ask a man what he thinks, and get from a man what he feels:
God, once caught in the fact, shows you a fair pair of heels.
Body and spirit are twins: God only knows which is which:
The soul squats down in the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch.
I have a large prejudice against “message fantasy,” that kind of fantasy written only to promote an author’s social, political, or religious views at the expense of story, setting, characters, damn near everything. I’m going to try to discuss ways to avoid that.
1) Make your peace with not expressing all the facets of your attitudes in one story.
You may be writing feminist fantasy, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to touch on abortion, lesbian rights, the destruction of the patriarchy, pornography, rape, battered wives, feminist publishing, feminist art, the intersection of race and sexism, and many, many other issues of the feminist movement both in the past and today. The only exception might be if you were actually writing about a feminist movement taking place in another world, and I’ve never seen that done. Usually, it’s just the heroine and one or two other female characters, or a small group like witches, struggling to improve their positions, not a whole group.
Bottom line: Don’t make the story a kitchen sink for all the facets of your beliefs. The more time you spend on preaching, the less time you spend on building a world and plot that will make people welcome your message instead of sniffing in disgust at it and going away. If you want to write about a heroine escaping an abusive relationship, then write about that, without having her somehow discover every feminist issue under the sun.
2) Know when you are too close to an issue to write about it.
I’ve read books and short stories that practically screamed of the author’s own issues with child abuse, rape, her parents, environmentalism, family values, or a certain religion. If you find yourself becoming so emotionally involved that you start using the characters as substitutes for people in your life, BACK AWAY. Yes, writing can be great therapy, but it can also be a means for a writer to avoid actually confronting what went wrong in her life, and heaping punishment on the fictional characters who can’t fight back instead.
Even more than that, I think, it doesn’t make for a good story. Readers who pick up a fantasy book are expecting a fantasy, not the author’s working out of her problems. If you write for therapy, I would suggest keeping it in a diary. And if you’re going to handle an issue that has a lot of emotional resonance for you, know the difference between writing the hero’s reaction and writing what you wish would have happened in your own life.
3) Know the “canon.”
These are the books in your particular subgenre, such as feminist fantasy or Christian fantasy. Read them carefully. Note the clichés, the way the authors handle their point gracefully and the ways in which they fail, the messages that have been beaten to death and the ones that may actually have some spark of life left in them. If you write a derivative fantasy that only mimics what’s gone before, knowingly or unknowingly, you may capture fans of that particular subgenre but utterly fail outside it.
That implies a failure on another level than that of just art (though I think the failure on the level of art is the more important one). After all, if you want to spread your views on a particular topic, why in the world would you want to preach only to the choir?
4) Don’t identify characters as targets.
Feminist fantasies have their Designated Misogynistic Bastards, who comes in such varieties as the Evil Witch-Hunter and the Stupid Prince. Christian fantasies have the Non-Believers Who Will Repent Real Soon Now. Wiccan fantasies have the Moronic Nature-Haters.
Why oh why do authors want to create blank targets instead of characters, anyway? The primary task should be to create people, not targets for bashing or therapeutic outlets for the author (see point two). These antagonists never have clever, crafty, or witty arguments, or even persuasive ones, but they manage to gather huge followings nonetheless. That doesn’t make any sense.
Try to think yourself into the opposing character’s point of view, at least long enough to write them. Ask yourself why these people might believe him or her. For that matter, ask yourself why people believe opposite things from you in the real world? The answer is not, “Because they are stupid! I am smart!” Someone’s being stupid here, oh yes, but it’s not the poor fictional characters who are only doing what the author tells them to, or the real-life people who believe sincerely in their views.
5) Don’t make your characters mouthpieces for your views, either.
To return to the three examples I listed above: We have perky heroines who preach about the evils of men and have the “strong men” in the story grovel before and worship them. Or Christians who win the day just by gazing steadfastly into the sky and praying now and then. Or happy singing dancing butterfly and bunny-loving New Age Wiccan heroines. They’re pious, and perky, and preachy, and they save the day, and I throw the book across the room.
I would say it’s a good idea never to create a character whom you agree completely with. The temptation will be too great to preach through him or her, and use the narrative to benefit him or her just because.
Speaking of which…
6) Never use the narrative to absolutely punish or reward characters.
In a message fantasy, I can tell who’s getting the happy ending right from the beginning, because the one character is just soooo right, and the other is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.
Excuse me, but why should your heroine get the happy ending just for being Wiccan? Why not have her do heroic things, stand up to the darkness, and maybe even confront the limitations of her beliefs? I always think of heroes and heroines as people who do heroic things, not people who believe or say the right things. If someone believes wholeheartedly that she should love all mankind but never does anything about it, I consider her less of a heroine than the woman who grumbles about helping her neighbors but still does it.
7) Writing from multiple points of view can help stem the message fantasy tide.
It’s amazing what a good point-of-view (defined as not one that you’re using just to pound home the message that X sucks or Y is great) can do. The reader can start wondering if they’re really supposed to take the pacifist bunny-loving heroine so seriously, when this war-mongering other woman is fighting because she believes sincerely that it is what’s right. Introduce third and fourth points of view, and the reader can see that there are at least three sides to the argument. Maybe some characters don’t even care about the supposed “issue” in the book at all, which makes it seem even less like a message fantasy.
I think this works utter wonders. Let the story and the characters be the important things, instead of the “message” that you want to convey, and you might find the story conveys the message quite well, as an option among several others, without the reader even noticing.
I’ve felt a temptation to write message fantasy myself, but thank all the gods you may believe in, I’ve never put it into action.