Monday, February 19, 2007

Killing Straw Men from the Authorial Pulpit

Have you ever written a straw man in a story? He's the opponent you set up for the purpose of easily defeating, usually in order to destroy a belief or opinion he holds that you as an author despise.

Let's say that you hate onions (as I do), so the bad guy in your story is an onion farmer who decides that a law must be passed that all people must eat onions at every meal. You write him as being ridiculously vile, even maniacal. Then, your hero comes along and destroys him and his onion farm.

As an onion-hating author, that would be a lot of fun, but it's not a great idea for a story. I would be preaching against onions by setting up a ridiculous person who gets thrashed by my hero. This would be a very preachy kind of writing. It's an onion-hating sermon, and most readers (except maybe other onion haters who applaud the farmer's demise) will see it as a thinly-veiled, sermonizing attack.

In author circles, much has been written about "preachy" stories, especially in Christian-themed novels. I'll save the details for another post, but I have seen just as much preachy writing in secular stories as I have seen in Christian stories, maybe more, so Christians aren't the only ones trying to get our morals, or lack thereof, into our books.

Is it wrong to "preach" in our stories? I think not. We just have to learn to allow our stories and our characters to live out the "sermons" rather than delivering our points in obvious pulpit-pounding scenarios. When our readers close our books, we want them to feel and desire to live out the value of the story. If there is no real value, then the book isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

I mention the straw man, because I have one in my new book Enoch's Ghost. It was fun and satisfying to put him in and then do away with him, but this week I'll be altering him into a more realistic character who isn't there just to be destroyed. Then, the book will be done and ready to send to the publisher.

Any thoughts on preachy writing or straw men?


James Drury said...

I am instantly reminded of the cartoon Captain Planet where the children battled Evil Corporations determined to polute the world. If ever there was a straw man...

Isn't "preaching" the whole point of any story? There must be some purpose to a story or else we are producing meaningless fluff.

From Fairly Tales to Sci-Fi, there is always a moral to the story. Some may be more obvious, such as The Ugly Duckling but we are always teaching something.

I belive we view stories as "preachy" when we either disagree with what is preached or else we think the moral is so obvious that the story isn't necessary.

But what about those stories that we don't view as "preachy" and instead just accept what we're told because it's "part of the story"? Most Sci-Fi books assume future societies will accept premarital hanky-panky and spend pages on describing future relationships. Aren't these "preaching" against our current social norms?

I'll take a few more "preachy" Christian books, thank you.

With extra onions.

Clefspeare said...

That's a good point about preaching being in the eye of the beholder. Many call a story preachy when they just don't like the theme or moral.

There are so many examples of blatant preaching in almost every TV show. It was certainly in M*A*S*H, Star Trek the Next Generation, and All in the Family. I mention older shows because I rarely watch TV now.

My stories have aspects that some people will likely call preachy, especially readers who have an anti-Christian or anti-holiness bias. My goal is to make the stories as compelling as possible so that the theme is revealed naturally, allowing those who are not biased to take away something that might change their lives for the better.

Galactic Overlord-In-Chief said...

I think some people complain about strawmen if they come across as too obvious. But prime time tv shows and some movies have no problem portraying Christians and/or conservative or traditionalist commentators as buffoons, fantatics, or just plain evil. So I think there's a double standard as far as Hollywood is concerned. Think you'll ever see a bad environmentalist?

(By the way, even some Trek fans think Star Trek: The Next Generation was too politically correct at times)

I think if people are entertained enough by a story, they won't complain. Also, many writers will attempt to hide their message in the guise of a satire or a comedy. Clef just mentioned M*A*S*H and All in the Family. I imagine many people who watched those shows probably didn't think much about what they represented.

By the way, I'm not an onion fan. Well, except maybe for McDonalds' onions...

Eve Nielsen said...

I think the term "preachy' has made us think that morals or Christianity have to be hidden in a story. I don't think that's what you're getting at. I think the point is, is the author writing a story or simply trying to prove a point. There is a way of doing both, I think. If one just wants to prove a point or vent-try blogging:)
Jame has a good point. I have felt this way as well, but after reading this post, I understand a bit more of what the term means.

Still pondering,

pam halter said...

Since I love onions, my strawman would be a mushroom farmer. :)

Seriously, I've heard from many-a workshop not to have an "agenda" when writing, especially for children. No one likes to be preached at and made to feel inferior or wrong. However, if our message is woven into a well written story that is fun, exciting or intriguing, we can "preach" to our hearts content.

I think it all comes down to writing well.

Clefspeare said...

Having an "agenda" and "proving a point" carry rather negative connotations. The underlying assumption is that the author has an "ax to grind," which is another phrase used to hammer those who dare to preach in stories.

So, I'll use a phrase that is more polite in our overly sensitive culture. In my stories, I want to communicate character. I hope that reading about young people involved in terrifying adventures and how they overcome through faith and courage will help others consider the possibility of taking those character qualities for themselves.

If that's preaching, then so be it.

The straw man, however, is a different beast. I am often tempted to make my bad guys say things that I totally abhor. For example, if there is a doctrinal persuasion that I disagree with, guess who I would like to have espousing it in my story? That's right. The bad guy. This would be a straw man.

Still, I don't mind having the bad guy live out the beliefs I disagree with. If he is showing the error instead of speaking it, the story's disapproval of that way of thinking isn't shoved down a reader's throat.

Melissa~ said...

I think that's why as Christian writers it’s so vital to rely on the Holy Spirit's inspiration for our characters’ thoughts and actions and be careful of allowing our flesh to dictate (mine would enjoy the anti-onion novel for sure *blech*)

I often have to remind myself of John 16:8 that tells me that it is the Holy Spirit Who brings conviction of sin. It seems when my flesh gets involved a story (or a song, or a conversation) can (and usually does) come across as judgmental and preachy. But when the Holy Spirit is whispering the words they are divine and encouraging and life-changing.

Just popped in to see when the new book will arrive. We are about to leave for a 3-week road trip and my teenage son might actually kiss his mom in public if I surprise him with that book before we leave. *heh-heh*

We really enjoy your work.