I was recently reading a book and halfway through it I realized I was reading propaganda! By propaganda, I mean that the author clearly had an idea that he/she wanted to promote with the book and was using the fictional device as a vehicle for that idea. I was simultaneously intrigued and appalled. I was impressed by the author’s ability to pull me into the story and make me feel. But I was appalled by how easily I was manipulated, particularly when I realized the manipulation.
This got me thinking about our authorial agenda as we write.
It’s not uncommon to start a book with a particular idea or point of view in mind. For example you might want to write about teen pregnancy, or school shootings, or true love, or any number of topics that you personally might have an opinion about. And here’s where it gets tricky… we should write about topics that we care about and are interested in. But, the question is: should we force our opinions onto our characters, their lives, and situations? If we do that, are we no longer telling honest stories? Are we instead creating propaganda where our characters become vehicles for our opinions?
I need to take a moment to define propaganda, particularly because it has a strong negative connotation. When we say the word propaganda, it’s easy to think about something “evil,” like war propaganda. We think of lies and rumors and things created with malicious intent. In fact, the dictionary definition reinforces this idea:
Propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. The deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.
But notice the key words I point out below, particularly in relation to our own intent as writers for children:
Propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group,movement, institution, nation, etc. The deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.
When we focus on just the positive words related to Propaganda we see where propaganda comes from. Ultimately, one probably doesn’t think they’re spreading propaganda, they believe they’re sharing an idea that they think will help others. As adults writing for children, I think we may have a lot of ideas (and agendas) about how to help and influence children, including values and beliefs that we think will make them grow into healthy and happy human beings. It seems like a noble thing to do. Not to mention that literature as a “teaching tool” has a long history in children’s lit. But do we have the kids in mind when we do this, or are we working in service of ourselves and our own beliefs?
I speak from experience when I ask this. Not too long ago I was writing a YA novel about virginity. I wanted my character to not have sex and to realize that abstinence was an okay choice and she was a good person for choosing it. I clearly had an agenda! But you know what…I couldn’t do this book justice. I wrote draft after draft and it never worked. This is because what I wanted my character to do was not what she wanted to do. The issues of my book were much deeper, more complex and fascinating, than I was allowing them to be. I was trying to force my ideals into the book and it became didactic and soul-less in the process.
“It’s not our job [as writers] to take sides. If we do we are writing propaganda. It’s our job to advocate for both sides.”
I’ve come to agree with this statement, because the amazing thing is – my story came alive – when I let go of what I wanted to say and let my characters be honest to themselves and direct themselves through the difficult questions and issues that the novel wanted to explore. The story became infinitely more complex, deep, and honest without my meddling little hands on it.
Personally, I search for truth in my writing. That’s my bottom line. Truth. And I don’t think I can find the truth of my story with my agenda in the way. There’s a great quote that goes something to the effect of: “True wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” And I take this nugget with me when I sit down to write. I may have my opinions, but I don’t know what my character needs. She does and she will tell me. All I can do is advocate for her, and advocate for her antagonists as well, so that she is truly challenged in her beliefs. And it turns out, that in this writing process, sometime my beliefs get challenged too. But isn’t that what we really want to do with our writing? Don’t we want our readers to think for themselves and decide what they want to agree or disagree with, believe or not believe? Mustn’t we show both sides in order to have them do this?
Here’s some good gut-check questions to see where you stand with your story (and be honest with yourself):
Is there something you want your character to learn in this book? Or is there something you want your reader to learn from this book?
Are you willing to let your book develop and your characters to learn a different truth than you may have set out for when you started writing? If not, why not?
Do you allow your character(s) to make choices or take actions even if they will move the story in a direction other than the one you want it to go in? If not, what are you afraid will happen if they go in a new direction?
Have you ever found yourself forcing your character’s reactions to story events? If so, why does it feel like you’re forcing them?
Have you looked deeply into the other “side” of your story? What’s the point of view that’s the opposite of your protagonist’s? Have you only skimmed the surface or have you given it a chance to try to convince your protagonist that there’s a different way to live her life?
Have you simply let things fall into the camps of good vs. evil?
Do the answers to these questions mean you are writing propaganda? Not necessarily. I mention them only to point out how we – as authors – might be directing our stories more than we should, how we might have blind spots we weren’t aware of, and to explore how there is depth and complexity in some of the opportunities we may not be considering.
One of my current philosophies on writing is that if I want my character to read like a real honest living human being, then I must treat her like one. I must allow her to make her own decisions. I must not judge her if she makes choices that I am opposed to (even morally). I cannot force my character to do anything, and if I do, she’s no longer a human but a pawn of my story. I must do my best to respect, understand, and empathize with my character in order for her to come alive and trust me with her secrets. And I think we should do this for all our characters, even the villains and antagonists.
Truth is not an easy thing to find. But if we put our own agendas and preconceived notions aside and truly follow our characters on their journeys, I think we might have a better chance at finding it together.