E. C. Ambrose (Twitter) is the author of a new dark historical fantasy series about a medieval barber surgeon, which starts next year from DAW books. The first book, Elisha Barber, is scheduled for a July 2013 release. E. C. blogs about history, fantasy and writing at http://ecambrose.wordpress.com and spends too much time in a tiny office in New England with a mournful black lab lurking under the desk.
Camouflaging your Soapbox: Writing for the Cause
One of the reasons we write is to find ways to explore or express ideas about the Big Things—science, religion, ethics, choices. And writing speculative fiction affords the opportunity to design thought experiments about subjects that can never be undertaken in a lab. We can create entire worlds, cultures and histories to push a question to the limits: What if. . .? and fill in the blank with a twist on a subject we’ve been brooding over, something we’re passionate about, something that courts controversy and stirs up readers. That’s the kind of book that gets people talking and thinking. And sometimes, gets the writer in trouble.
How often have you heard a reader complain about an author (frequently a big name, lightly edited author) using a book to expound upon some cause near to the author’s heart? Often, the cause is religious or political, sometimes social or ethical. It’s one thing to be inspired by a real-life hot button issue, and quite another to deliver a diatribe about it in the form of a novel. Nobody likes to be lectured, especially when they’ve picked up your book in search of entertainment.
So what if you do have a cause? You have a point of view on an issue. You want to explore it, to support it or to attack the other side. You could simply keep it on your blog and confront the issue directly. You could also put together a theme anthology where profits will support the cause. In my case, I’m donating some of the profit from my books to raise awareness and combat human rights abuses, and torture in particular. My series has a medieval setting, but when I started researching torture, expecting to learn more about the rack, the wheel, and other such arcane devices, I was horrified to find how much of the information was not medieval at all, but came from contemporary accounts. Little of this research made it into the books, but this realization informed my approach to writing them.
Fiction is a powerful vehicle for social inquiry and for social change (see the lasting impact of books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Black Beauty). The strongest themes are those that the reader discovers without realizing it, those that arise from the conflicts of sympathetic and believable characters engaged in the pursuit of their own goals—not your goals as an author or as a person. Allow your characters and their conflicts to embody different aspects of the cause—don’t tell them, or the reader, what to think, but rather, give them a stage broad enough to create real drama. Embed the reader in the experience of the character to show them the problems you see.
It helps to present multiple points of view on the subject, and to ensure (at the very least) that not everyone on the other side of the question is simply evil. This is a common failing of the cause-driven author, though it is also an attribute of a number of best-sellers. In Hit Lit, a recent book analyzing a dozen blockbusters of the last 100 years, James Hall found that many of them had religious themes, and that these themes were often one-sided, or at the very least, presented from the perspective of a skeptic. It’s an approach that engages both habitual readers and also those who read only a handful of books but want to see what all the fuss is about. There’s a fine line between stoking a lively conversation, and setting off an explosion. Most authors would love to achieve Dan Brown status, but it would be nice to get there without also getting death threats.
I believe that fiction can be a force for change, for confronting the causes we feel strongly about—but it works best when we’re using the tools of the novelist—character, conflict, plot—to challenge readers to experience that cause from the inside out.
And if an author is just looking to lecture? That’s what blogs are for.