You’re reading a novel, and it’s going along great. You’re enjoying the story. You’re in love with the characters. And then a scene opens in a coffee shop, and two characters who you really like get their coffee and start discussing which form of government is better.
Are you still in the story? Be honest.
Yes, sure, there are some instances where characters sitting down to discuss the merits of governmental systems is appropriate—maybe even expected. But a whole scene with two characters just talking about their opinions on how involved the government should be in education?
I’ve read several books recently where this happens, and I immediately lost interest. Because I’m not reading a book to hear a political discussion between two characters. I’m reading a book because I want to experience something.
But what if my characters don’t agree?
Maybe the characters in your book have opposing worldviews. That’s great! Actually, that’s a great idea. Every story should have characters who are exact opposites. Maybe your two characters don’t get along. Maybe they squabble and fight and have discussions. That’s definitely possible, and it’s even good to do it. But don’t use it as part of your story.
Don’t use a discussion between characters as a major plot point or a turning point, because it won’t work. A scene that shows two characters talking to each other (or even arguing with each other) about opposing viewpoints doesn’t accomplish anything except annoy your readers.
It’s like scrolling through your Facebook feed when one of your friends has posted a really stupid video. It starts playing even if you don’t click on it, and instead of thinking about how deep and important the video is and how it’s going to affect your decisions from now on, you’re really just irritated about it. And you remind yourself again to change your Facebook settings so that you don’t have to watch stupid videos you don’t care about.
Oftentimes, what I’ve found, is that big extended discussions between characters in a novel is merely a platform for the author to share his or her opinions about a given topic. Granted, that’s not always the case. But in most of the novels I’ve read where conversation happens for a long time without anything else going on, that’s exactly what’s going on.
And I get it. It’s so much easier to write a scene of dialog that reflects your political or religious leanings rather than show the results of each one. But if you want your story to mean something to other people (not just to you), that’s the way you need to do it.
Nothing turns readers off more than reading your personal political or religious opinions in a novel.
Do you realize why people avoid talking about politics and religion at work? Right. Because people usually disagree. Those topics usually rub people the wrong way. And I’m not saying that we should always take the safe route and never say anything that offends people. That’s not the case at all. What I’m saying is that nothing turns readers off more than reading your personal political or religious opinions in a novel.
But how will I make my point?
Now, if you’re writing non-fiction, that’s a different story. If you’re writing non-fiction, talk about religion and politics all you like. Non-fiction is about your opinions. But fiction is a different story, both literally and figuratively.
No one is going to pick up and read one of my novels because I’m Pro-Life. No one is going to pick up and read my novels because I’m a fiscal conservative, constitutionalist Christ-follower. No one is going to pick up my novels and read them because I believe God created the world and everything in it in six literal days.
If I were writing a biography or a memoir, maybe they would, because they would be interested in what I think about certain topics. But fiction is about characters who aren’t me, characters who aren’t you. When you tell a story, you need to get out of the way and let the characters do the work.
Granted, I’ve read some novels where the author has included themselves, but they don’t show up on the scene and start preaching against the evils of capitalism. If an author makes an actual appearance in the book, it’s usually just a small role to make people snicker.
If you want to write a book that demonstrates the dangers of a certain religion or political idea, instead of having your characters sit around talking about the problem, craft the plot to reflect the results of those religions or ideas.
I want to write a novel to make people think twice about the ethics of reality television.
- Option 1: I can have two characters drinking tea discussing how their favorite reality TV stars make them feel. Suzy says her favorite star makes her feel like a good person. Jackie says her favorite star makes her feel depressed, and she believes reality TV could potentially be bad for her self-image. Suzy tells her that she’s just being too sensitive.
- Option 2: I can craft a story about a futuristic world that forces combatants (picked at random) to battle to the death on national television. Can anyone say Hunger Games?
Which do you think is more powerful? Which do you think paints a stronger picture? Which do you think will stay with your readers longer and make them truly think?
Use your voice, not your opinion
Your opinions and viewpoints are essential to what you’re writing. You can’t write a novel if you don’t believe something passionately. But there are better ways to integrate your beliefs into your writing rather than just dumping your emotions haphazardly into awkward conversations over caffeinated beverages. When that happens, we lose the voice of your characters, and we begin to hear your personal opinions instead.
And, honestly, the reason people read your writing is because of your characters.
Don’t worry that your book won’t be original. Don’t worry that your book won’t feel like you. Don’t worry that your book may not 100% reflect your personal opinion on every page. It shouldn’t. Because your book isn’t you, and your characters aren’t you. But your fingerprints are all over every sentence, and your readers know that.
The story isn’t the platform; the story is the key.
After it’s done, after it’s written and published and sent out into the big wide world, that’s when you have the chance to talk about your opinions. Outside the book’s pages. Not on them. A book—a story—is a tool that you can use as a vehicle to share your thoughts and beliefs. But the story isn’t the platform; the story is the key that opens the door.