I've long believed that for a novel (or any kind of fiction) to have a certain weight or power behind it, there must be a message. I've been writing this why for many years, and it's lent my fiction direction and purpose.

However, I am now faced with a quandary: I've come across a message I really believe in, but if taken the wrong way by enough people, it could have horrible consequences. Chances are that nothing would ever happen, but there is always the slight possibility that it would be the push enough people need to send them into action.

I obviously don't want to use my actual message as an example, so I'll use one which seems popular today instead. There are a lot of dystopian movies these days, and while the focus on it varies, there's always some level of 'the people' striking down the 'evil government' which has 'enslaved' them.

Now if I'm an author who feels that government is something which needs to be kept in check before it becomes corrupt, and I choose to write a novel saying as much, there's a problem. Do I want something to change? Obviously. But that doesn't mean I want rioting in the streets and anarchy in the nation. More than likely, I just want a solution reached peaceably. Ideally, heads of government would realize 'where they're headed' and take measures to prevent it.

That might be what I want, but - always assuming that my novel influences a large percentage of the people - is that what's going to happen? Probably not. There probably will be rioting in the streets, if not worse.

So what can I do? I feel like people need to know this message, but I'm afraid that if taken the wrong way or in the wrong context, I might be the cause of some truly horrible actions. It isn't likely, but there's still a chance, no matter how small.

The obvious solution is to preach directly against those horrible actions. In theory this would work. But in practice, people are fully capable of latching onto something they believe in and ignoring all else.

So that's my question: what do you do when your message could be dangerous? Do you just give up writing it altogether? Or is there a way to ensure that it isn't taken the wrong way? (Obviously you can't 100% guarantee anything, but you can certainly come as close as possible.)


This question is NOT:

  • Asking for opinions on whether or not the opening paragraph is true or false. I'd be happy to hear your thoughts in a comment, but please, do not open an answer with 'I think your underlying assumption is flawed...'
  • Asking for you to show how UNLIKELY it is that enough people read my novel, identify with the message, and then act in a way I would never wish. I know it's incredibly unlikely. My concern is with the smallest of chances that such an event occurs.
  • A disguised anti-government message. The whole dystopian example is theoretical, and this is a legitimate question and concern of mine.
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    "Or is there a way to ensure that it isn't taken the wrong way?" The only way to prevent this is by not writing anything at all. – Dan C Jul 12 at 22:41
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    "anarchy in the nation" - be careful with words, anarchy being properly set in right society, can be fruitful, what you mean is chaos. – rus9384 Jul 12 at 22:44
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    Sorry to downvote, but your question get's pretty condescending towards the end, and could be much shorter. – Tom Jul 13 at 9:25
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    Goethe wrote Werther and suicide rates skyrocketed, but not many people remember him for that – PlasmaHH Jul 13 at 14:24
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    Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe: "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." – LarsTech Jul 13 at 17:49
up vote 56 down vote accepted

If you don't want people rioting in the streets you should show how people are rioting in the streets in your novel - and how that way utterly fails to achieve what the people wanted to achieve.

Discourage the obvious, easy ways that you already see, the horrible and dangerous paths that people may think they should walk on when reading your novel. They need to realize that you believe it will end very, very badly for them if they follow that path. They need to see with their own eyes what horrors await those that follow the wrong path.

But the path that for example your protagonist takes: that way actually works! Show your readers that they can achieve their goal in a peaceful way or whatever way you choose to show. Don't view your message merely as "The government is evil!" - start viewing your message as "The government is evil and I will show the population how they can make it better!"

In the end your readers some readers will misinterpret your text. And they will find new ways to interpret your work that you can't foresee. Your goal should be to get the message across to the majority by making it obvious how the dangerous ways that you already see are doomed to fail and how the peaceful way will help achieve the ultimate goal of making life better for everyone. Or whatever way you choose and whatever goal you have in mind.

Your message consists not only of a statement about your current day society - it consists of a statement about the current state, a way to go forward from here and a statement about how the world could be if everyone follows that way. Every other way will fail.

The world is not black and white and so is your fictional world. Show a different side of the whole struggle and a different approach that you believe people could reasonably come up with while reading your work and demonstrate the consequences of walking that path.

You want the government to take action? Show the government person taking action and succeeding while the riot on the outside only meant emergency law.

You want the people to have more humane animal farming? Show how much money can be made with humane animal farming while the old-school competitors are left in the dirt.

You want people to value their privacy again? Show how much better your protagonist felt when they were off-grid while other people are losing their identity.

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    I was thinking that something like this wouldn't really solve the problem, but your re-interpretation of the theme really helped. Great advice. – Thomas Myron Jul 12 at 15:17
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    +1 I like this idea of showing how the "bad" approach will fail. I also want to point out that failure doesn't always mean not achieving the characters' goals. You can also have characters succeed but clearly lose something important in the process. I like the example of the Hunger Games, where in trying to stop the oppressors, the rebellion started to become the oppressors themselves. The atrocities were clear to the reader and main character, but not to the leaders of the rebellion. – David K Jul 12 at 16:29
  • @DavidK Great example, thanks for bringing that up. – Thomas Myron Jul 12 at 21:02
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    Ideally, the failure of the horrific way would be well established before the reader even figures out what the message really is about. This would make it harder to dismiss, since they won't have had a chance to latch onto the violent path before they get to its portrayal. – jpmc26 Jul 13 at 10:49

From my POV, if I strive to make myself clear and unambiguous, and people take that the wrong way, that's on them. Not me.

Virtually every revolution for the good has involved "illegal" acts, including lethal violence, in one way or another. The founding fathers of the USA fired upon the duly constituted authority of the Crown, killing people. Real revolutionary rebels are always outlaws, otherwise there is no revolution. The French Revolution was a bloody mess.

If you are advocating for something that would change the world for the better, be assured there are many powerful and rich people benefiting from the current world order that are willing to corrupt government (probably already have) to use their force to outlaw it, prevent it, and keep the subjugated, subjugated.

So my advice is to do your best, put your idea out there in fiction, and see what happens. IRL one must always weigh the cost of change against the benefit of change; when talking politics that includes, for example, the price of change is often grief and lives and fortunes lost, but this must be weighed against the lives saved and grief prevented by making the change anyway.

There is always the risk of unintended consequences; you are not guilty of creating them by telling a fictional story. There will always be readers that just cannot tell the difference between reality and a fiction with an engineered outcome, because the author always has a thumb on the scale and always cannot anticipate every real-life response to various character actions (or did but chose an alternative more conducive to the plot).

Catering to the mentally ill is a recipe for never publishing anything, because we cannot anticipate complete insanity.

Write for reasonable people that use fiction to escape the real world, but still know the difference between fiction and the real world. If you have a good idea, write it. Make it clear. Make it exciting, even if that takes violence. Darth Vader destroyed the planet Alderaan, killing two billion people! It would be silly to accuse George Lucas of advocating for genocide.

  • You will find people defending the Empire blowing Alderaan up, though - even if it would indeed make no sense to make George Lucas responsible of advocating blowing planets up. – Eth Jul 18 at 9:59

So, you've come across a message that you "really believe in, but if taken the wrong way by enough people, it could have horrible consequences" and, I assume, you don't want people to be persuaded in this 'wrong' direction. You're aware of the 'right' direction and, "more than likely", you want your readers to be persuaded down that path instead.

If you genuinely want people to follow a 'right' steer then studying the psychology of persuasion might be in order here so that you can do this effectively.

I found an article called 'Principles of Persuasion' in which Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about the following six methods (more details on the site I linked to):

  1. Reciprocity. People are obliged to give back to others the form of a behaviour, gift, or service that they have received first.
  2. Scarcity. People want more of those things they can have less of.
  3. Authority. People follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts.
  4. Consistency. People like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done.
  5. Liking. People prefer to say yes to those that they like.
  6. Consensus. Especially when they are uncertain, people will look to the actions and behaviours of others to determine their own.

I'm not affiliated with this guy at all, but I can see how some of these methods could be incorporated into your book in order to persuade readers to follow the 'right' course of action.

Good luck with your message.

  • An excellent idea, thank you for your thoughts. – Thomas Myron Jul 12 at 15:49

I will supplement Secespitus' excellent answer with this morsel: Make very sure that the consequence of running with the dangerous idea really are consequences.

The consequences should be natural. There should be no leaps of plausibility. The disaster should resemble the Fall of Rome, in which the things done by the Romans were the proximate cause, and not like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which was more like a punishment than a consequence.

Working within your premise of "novel as message", very few messages are black-and-white. Most will bring problems if ignored and also if taken too far, or too literally. Humans (and maybe any other species likely to evolve in the real universe) are likely to have difficult and sometimes conflicting motives, including selfish and contradictory motives.

So a message in the sense you mean, may be best done, by showing the worst outcomes of both extremes, so the reader can figure it themselves.

A superb example of this in an acclaimed novel, is Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed". In this book, the author posits a protagonist within a world where there are no possessions/private property, who seeks to work with scientists in other worlds that have economies based on possession/property. By the end of the book, she shows (but doesn't tell) how in the first world, jealousy and power games play out even without property to fight over, and in the second world how unequal distribution causes harm and power cliques to arise. The reader is left in an unsettling position of being shown the harm both extremes can do, without any hint from the author which side they should end up supporting. The author adds to this by leaving it to the reader to encounter the tension seen through her protagonist's eyes, while doing nothing at all to resolve it for them.

In your case it's worth a read, because it sounds like you want to do is convey a message that something is bad (or must be done), but also, done too much or the wrong way, harm will also result. You want to convince your readers of both of these things, and leave them to take on board the message(s?).

That's exactly what LeGuin did in her book, and is very rarely done. It might help to show how it's possible.

Secespitus's answer of showing them the negative possibilities of the 'wrong' interpretation is a good idea.

I know writers are meant to "Show not tell". Sometimes it might be useful to straight out tell the readers that the possible intrepretation you are worried about is not what you are advocating. Especially if your show techniques are also open to their own misintreptations. A combination of both techniques could also be used.

For instance I've been working on a story where to become a magic-user you literally have to die. Dead dead... and then you get magic! See why I am a bit worried?

I could potentially see one or two wretched souls potentially deciding that what they were reading was a plausible?/real?/escape-from-reality-good-idea and try and take their own life. That is not what I want!

I have planned to have my protagonist have a confusing time adjusting to their new situation. During a very early training/lecture/small info-dumpey session etc the sceptical and confused protaganist will straight out ask their mentor figure what would have happened if they had purposely taken their own life. And the mentor is going to say something along the lines of:

Don't be stupid, that idea won't ever work out. Completely not what I said.

Possibly not in those exact words :)

And this early "preventative disclaimer" message may be reinforced multiple times throughout the story in both show and further tell scenes with other curious characters. Hopefully unobtrusively.

Obviously, if a few readers are determined to misintrepretate my story premise or underlying message (as in your case), there is nothing that you or I can do. As Amadeus wrote:

...we cannot anticipate complete insanity.

But we can and should do what we can, for what we can predict.

The "message" you refer to is probably what is known as the premise of the novel. It's like when you present an argument to reach a conclusion, except the novel itself is the "argument" put forward to demonstrate a conclusion.

However, this does not mean that the premise is true to real life: it's true to the life within your novel. In The Godfather, it's hard to think that Puzo wanted to show a universal truth of "family loyalty leads to a life of crime", or even present this message for people to take away and emulate.

Note, also, that the message itself is not glamorized. It's as true to the characters as possible and shows everything, warts and all: the toll the situation takes on everyone involved, and the consequences. Life is chaotic and messy and rarely black and white; and fiction helps to shine a spotlight on this.

It's great to have your premise or message, and it's perfectly fine if you believe in the message yourself, but it's worth remembering that it's your characters and their conflict that should do the speaking, not you the author. You may well think that government needs to be kept in check, and that becomes an inspiration to your story, but that's not actually the problem. The problem lies in writing a story where the message does not ring true for the characters, and you come across as preachy, trying to orchestrate events so that you end up with something that is not believable. Think "happily ever after", or the glorious revolution that leads to a utopia that reigns forever where everyone's happy, and there are cats and dogs living together in peace and harmony. This isn't fiction: it's propaganda. The revolution may succeed, but at what cost to the people and its characters?

As another example to draw from, Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed is one of the best works trying to demonstrate what a society founded on anarchism would look like, but it's not a utopia by any means. She tried to make it real, and messy, and hard, because we're human, and we're flawed.

I'd also like to just add that there are many books and films and songs that have been written where they have been used by people to justify all sorts of things. The Catcher in the Rye inspired Mark David Chapman who shot John Lennon. American Psycho has been suggested as the inspiration for other murders by people obsessed with the book. Kurt Cobain killed himself quoting a line from the song by Neil Young. Back in the 80's there was the hysteria around Heavy Metal music lyrics. I could compile a very long list of works that have been accused of inspiring all sorts of things. You, as an author, have really no control over how people receive your work, the best you can do is write true to yourself and, more importantly, your characters.

Imagine a world where bold, innovative, life- and world-changing authors didn't write.

  • No Bible, Quran, or Tanach. No Vedas, Sutras, Tao Te-Ching, or Book of the Dead. Terrible wars and breathtaking works of art have come from these.

  • No "I have a Dream" or "Das Kapital" or "Mein Kampf." No "Communist Manifesto" or "U.S. Declaration of Independence" or "Long Walk to Freedom." Books that shaped national policies and resulted in riots.

  • No "Origin of Species" or "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems" or "The Selfish Gene" which changed our views of science and got people put in jail or vilified.

Perhaps the hallmark of the greatest works of the writen word is that they bring the opportunity for change into the world. No movie has ever done that. No work of art or illustration. No piece of music. Only words have the power to change the world.

If you are sincerely concerned about the potential negative effect your words might have, then I'll give you a snippet from the publisher's introduction to a little-known work, "Free Speech 101" by Joe Vogel.

In our opinion, the best protection against what is perceived as offensive or controversial speech is not suppression, but more speech. And the only acceptable limitation on the right to free speech is the right not to listen.

If you're araid that people might take your words the wrong way, either write better words, or write more words. But always choose to write.

“Don’t jump off the life raft to drown yourself for fear that you won’t ever be saved” -fu

Tell the story with its 100% unadulterated and non-watered down message you envisioned when you conceptualized it.

A lot of my favorite artists “the greats” as it were, from all genres and forms of art, never held back due to possible misconceptions by the artists audience!

Be bold, be brave and don’t hold back!

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