The past week in America has been eye-opening, if nothing else. The reactions of some made me think of writers I’ve worked with who are intent on educating their readers.
Writing Tip for Today: Fiction can be a powerful tool—but is educating readers or changing their minds by twisting arms the best path?
When Education Works
Great writers often weave stories that leave deep impressions on readers and society in general. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, exposed the cruel and dangerous meat-packing industry. Charles Dickens’ novels laid bare the underbelly of the Industrial Age. And even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books contain a broad commentary on authority and class.
With this in mind, is educating readers really such a bad thing? After all, authors of fiction about a part of society that has been oppressed (Toni Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Sherman Alexie, for example) can illuminate hidden flaws and assumptions that should and must change. Authors like these have influenced our attitudes and mores for centuries.
Authors from Fitzgerald to Steinbeck and Hemingway in the twentieth century successfully drew attention to injustice, dangerous political events and have helped to reshape thinking through their fictional characters. Currently, top writers continue that tradition by placing readers in a story they can relate to and ultimately, change their minds through the emotions. Writers can be very powerful!
When Education Fails
One of the ingredients for fiction which can stand the test of time is in its ability to educate through creating. Sadly, many writers try to educate not by creating but by force. What do I mean?
Education fails If a writer adds details that add interest (read: You want to know all this stuff because I did research!) but do not forward the story or one that takes readers down rabbit holes because it’s just so fascinating. All your research is worthless if you are using it as window dressing or to prove your point.
Education also fails when writers care more about changing readers’ minds than the story. If your agenda (whether it is to force people to believe or disbelieve things or it’s to convert readers) focuses too closely on the outcome for readers that you wish to see, your story suffers.
Creating Not Educating
If you write your story fully immersed in the character, the goals, the obstacles and the struggle, I believe your story will be more authentic. Add in deep emotions for your reader to experience through your protagonist, and a story has even more impact. If you manage to enlarge your story and make a statement about life that rings true, it may rise to that educational level.
For most of us, creating a world our readers can relate to, feel with and draw conclusions about should be our focus. Sure, do your research. Hold opinions. Your characters may start out believing one thing only to grow and change. These things should enrich your story, not drive it. As a rule, readers don’t appreciate morality fables or allegories which are obvious and pushy.
But by keeping the genuine human experience top of mind as you write, you can create a world that allows your readers to walk in someone else’s shoes, feel what they feel and maybe even change a few minds. By catching flies with honey, not vinegar, you’ll grow your readership. Hit them over the head under the guise of education and your story may not have the effect you hoped it would have. Create, but keep educating readers far down on your list.