This post was originally written and posted May 21st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.
A few weeks ago, I made the rare, conscious decision to stop reading a book. This wasn’t a case of “I don’t find this interesting,” where I set the book down one day and then don’t pick it back up because it wasn’t holding my interest. No, this was something different. This was a conscious choice, a distinct mental observation that I no longer wanted to read it. It wasn’t because the writing was poor. It was actually pretty good. And it wasn’t because the story was dull, because it certainly wasn’t.
It was because of what the book inspired.
If you’re starting to think that when I said “Inspiration” in the title above, I might have been thinking something different than you assumed, then you’re probably correct. Today, I’m not going to talk about what inspires you as an author. No, today I’m going to talk about something different. I’m going to talk about what your story inspires in its readers.
As authors, we have a lot of challenges placed upon us. To generate a story that is gripping. To create characters that the audience understands and can relate to. To make our story readable, clear, and concise.
But there’s another challenge that we have as well, something that all to often we completely forget. The challenge of what our work inspires in our readers.
That’s why I stopped reading that book that I had been decently enjoying. It followed the classic standard of “good versus evil” except … the book clearly threw far more attention on the villain than the heroes. And not in an amusing way. Although it started off balanced between the two sides, the book slowly slipped into a pattern where the villain’s descent into evil was getting 2-3 times the amount of attention and words that the heroes were. Worse, the heroes were getting the short end of things from the explanation angle as well, getting short, quick, hand-wave explanations for why they did what they did, while meanwhile the villain was being given whole pages explaining from their mind why what they did was “actually right.”
The end result was a book that gave lip service to its heroes, while actually glorifying the villain and all the evil they were perpetrating. It wanted you to side with the villain as they did all these terrible, horrible things. It gave this terrible character far more attention than anything else, and let the book justify their actions as right.
So I put it down, because it wasn’t inspiring anything that I felt was worth anything in my life. After all, what was I going to take away from it? What was inspiring about a book that was all about how awesome it was to be evil (and I’m not talking tongie-in-cheek, either, this became seriously dark)? I put it down because there wasn’t anything I felt I could take from it any longer.
So let me ask you: What does your work inspire? When a reader finishes your work, what are they going to take from it? What are they going to remember? What has your book encouraged and discouraged, through either its plot or its characters? If you hand your story to a teen, what are they going to walk away thinking?
Quite often when writing, we forget about this. We talk of themes and character development, but we forget that when these are all put together, our work sends a message. It might be silly. It might be serious. But no matter what, there is a message. And when someone reads that work, that message is going to sink in. We might have a theme of—for example—love conquers all (just to go with a classic), but what will that theme inspire in our readers? Are they going to finish the book feeling like they have a chance at finding love in their life? Are they going to finish with a declaration that they’ll do like the main character and make an effort to shore up weak areas in their life in order to be a better person?
As writers and more importantly authors, our words can and will inspire readers. We need to acknowledge this when we write, and watch what we write, so that we can be sure we’re inspiring the right things. Because let’s face it, there is a grain of truth to the observation that we are influenced by what we watch, read, and play, conscious and unconscious (in fact, there is a massive amount of research to back this up). I’m not saying that if your character solves a problem with violence your reader will automatically assume to do likewise, but rather than the solution presented is going to stick in a reader’s mind.
As a personal example, this is why my favorite character from the current Marvel films always will be Captain America. Not because of the fights, or his powers, but because of what his character inspires. He’s the character who, in a pivotal scene of the first film, throws himself on what he thinks is a live grenade to save his squad-mates (who by the way, hate his guts). He inspires the sort of selfless heroism and ideals that I happen to respect. And when I watch a film with him in it, I feel inspired to be a bit more selfless and a better person.
We need to be aware that when we make our characters heroes in other’s eyes, we’re inspiring them. When those heroes make a decision or act in a certain way, our readers will be influenced by it. Likewise, the tone of our book, the moral, message, or ideal (and a purposeful lack of an ideal is still an ideal) will do the same. So when you sit down to write your story, your characters, consider: What are you going to inspire? What do you want to inspire? If someone is going to take the theme of your work to heart, what will it be? And how are you going to make that theme come across, so yours is not the book readers stop reading because its purported theme is completely overwhelmed by another?
This is, admittedly, a short topic. But it’s something that all of us, as writers, or really any creators of content, should be considering. Our works will inspire people, like it or not. We need to remember this, so that we can be sure that we’re inspiring the best.