On Appropriation vs. Representation

This past weekend I was asked to be on a podcast that’s a little outside my usual scene.

I go to an art club called Drink and Draw every month, and many of the people there are more “serious” artists than I am (or at least more talented). Anyway, my friend Eric is the club’s host, and he usually picks me up on his way there so we talk about stuff. This time, we ended up talking about the comic book The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, which I hadn’t read.

It turned out that Eric had seen a Twitter discussion about whether The Nameless City was appropriative, because it has a cast and setting clearly based on ancient China, but it’s written by a white woman. An Asian artist on Twitter was saying books like this and television shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender (which clearly influenced Hicks) are disappointing in a way because it feels like mainstream culture is capitalizing on “diversity” while still not making way for people to make art about themselves.

This is a good point, and Eric and I had a spirited discussion about it. He invited me to come on his podcast the next day to talk about the same thing with his friend Robbie (who I also know but he’s mainly just an acquaintance of mine–we hang out with the same people and he’s been in my house but we don’t really talk much). Of course, first I had to read the book. So I read it at Drink and Draw before doing my art. 😉

The podcast episode I was on is here: Handsome Boys #142.

A review I did of the book is here: The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (review).

Here’s the thing: We all know we would like more diversity of all kinds in fiction, and we all know the only way it can happen is if people make it on purpose. The problems are many, though, and one of the most insidious is that mainstream audiences often think a piece of media is not “for them” if it primarily contains people who are not like them. When we “mark” a piece of media, usually the people who are described by that mark will flock to read it, but it will remain less circulated, undervalued, probably written off as niche, and rarely reaching the broader world. But if the mainstream media actively solicits media featuring characters, settings, and messages less commonly featured, will that help?

Some say it’s really not going to help that much if the creators filtering the message into the mainstream are not telling their own stories. If they’re telling underrepresented populations’ stories through their own lenses, does it really serve the purpose of bringing those stories to light, or is it just people from the mainstream culture wanting to pat themselves on the back for being so inclusive now that diversity is a buzzword?

So what do the underrepresented populations in question have to say about this? Well, as usual, it’s a mixed bag. Some want to know why mainstream authors with plenty of connections want to hijack their narratives and give them to the outside world so they can gawk. Some want to know why they’re not being solicited to contribute work if it’s their perspective that’s supposedly so valuable. And some believe one of the things that actually does help pave the road for that to happen is getting mainstream audiences to understand that work about “the other” can be for them.

Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to get a cartoon onto mainstream television that did not contain a single solitary white person, and it’s definitely got a large cast, too. The names and concepts definitely have Asian inspiration of various sorts, but it is still Fantasy Asia, so the creators get a bit of a pass if something isn’t “accurate.” And its creators are two white guys. They have a ton of Asian consultants and people working on the show, but it’s still a mainstream Nickelodeon show by Mike and Bryan. Perhaps this sends a message to big media companies that audiences can and do accept and enjoy these stories. Will this prompt them to actively solicit shows with actual Asian creators at the helm? Too early to tell.

But it’s clear from most of the dialogue that underrepresented people do not want to build a fence and say “you should not write about us.” There’s a very good reason why those folks are wary of mainstream creators (why do they want to do it? what are they going to screw up?), and they also have good reason to expect well-meaning mainstream creators to do their research extensively. That research can include bringing in test audiences from the population they’re trying to portray, including creators from that background as co-creators or permanent contributors, and consuming media and commentary by those populations.

I want men to be able to write about women, for instance–and I want men who are making creative works about women to help combat the notion that works about us are marked for only our consumption, irrelevant to people who aren’t women–but I’m not going to appreciate it if the way the male creator makes his woman character feel “authentic” is to graft in his assumptions about what women think about. I have seen a male author praised extensively for wow it’s so hard to believe a man wrote this book about a woman, it feels so feminine but I was shocked that the supposed authenticity was literally her worrying about being fat and being obsessed with shoes. I also once read a very popular male author’s book that was from a teenage girl’s point of view and I cringed every time he tried to make her say/do something that reminded us of her gender (“ugh why do boys make us watch their movies? we’re not interested lol because ladies!”). I would ask these men to read books that are by women, to try to understand why we write what we write, and then don’t appoint yourself to tell a Feminine Story About Being Female. You don’t need to tell that story, but yes, please, put female characters in your book.

From a practical standpoint, I think it’s very important for mainstream audiences to start seeing people who are different from them in their everyday media. Without having to deliberately seek it out. Because people who aren’t like you are part of your world. Most media does not currently reflect that. We also need both “issue books” and “incidentally representative books.” The Nameless City was not about what it is to be any of the Asian populations it included, though it gave its own culture to the fantasy world (as it should). So it’s a nice thing if people from all backgrounds can go into a bookstore and see this and think “hmm that looks interesting” rather than thinking “welp, Asians on the front, must be some kind of niche media.”

I remember working at a bookstore and having a woman pestering me to make recommendations for “good books” and rejecting all the suggestions before I could even finish a sentence, and one of those attempts was me saying “You might like Life of Pi. It’s about a boy from India–” “NO.” She immediately wasn’t interested as soon as I said “India.” We also had an “African-American Fiction” section when I first started at the store. Many black readers would come in asking for the section, and other readers were scandalized by its existence–I heard black readers say it was gross to segregate it from the “regular” fiction, and I also heard non-black readers snot about it wanting to know where the white fiction was. (Clue phone: Pretty much the entire rest of the store.) Later it was integrated (along with several other categories) into one big mega-fiction section. Some people said that was the right choice. Some people were frustrated that they could no longer easily browse a section that was for them, and interpreted it as an attempt to take the entire thing away. Both sides are kind of right, but I think I’m personally more invested in my background and other people’s backgrounds all being presented as “for” anyone to be exposed to.

And here’s something interesting.

Wait, what’s that? Is it a children’s book with a same-sex couple on the front? Yeah it is.

This book is coming out later this year. It’s explicitly described in the book summary as a love story–depicted in the comfortable fairy-tale style children are used to seeing in all their other storybooks. There is no sticker on it proclaiming “LOOK, IT’S LESBIANS!!” or anything, but even though some people might interpret the red character as a boy because of how she’s dressed, a basic glance at the information will make it clear that their names are both feminine-coded names (Sapphire and Ruby) and they both use “she” pronouns. They’re in a clear casually intimate pose on the front cover. This is not being designated as a Special Interest book. It’s just going to be released as a storybook. For the regular storybooks section.

Recently in an interview, creator Rebecca Sugar said this about children’s media:

I think if you wait to tell kids, to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!

You have to talk about it–you have to let it be what it gets to be for everyone. I mean, like, I think about, a lot of times I think about sort of fairy tales and Disney movies and the way that love is something that is ALWAYS discussed with children. And I think also there’s this idea that’s like, oh, we should represent, you know, queer characters that are adults, because there are adults that are queer, and you should know that’s something that is happening in the adult world, but that’s not how those films or those stories are told to children. You’re told that YOU should dream about love, about this fulfilling love that YOU’RE going to have. […]

The Prince and Snow White are not like someone’s PARENTS. They’re something you want to be, that you are sort of dreaming of a future where you will find happiness. Why shouldn’t everyone have that? It’s really absurd to think that everyone shouldn’t get to have that!

Based on Rebecca Sugar’s history, it’s clear that she is very invested in portraying same-sex couples as natural, as an everyday part of life, as not worth batting an eyelash at in protest. She tends not to make her works “issue” works, and on her television show she’s included a large cast of non-white characters (as well as coding some of her aliens as having features typically associated with people of color), and she just presents that and lets it be without pointing at it and saying “look what I did.”

Rebecca’s romantic partner (and major contributor to her show) is Ian Jones-Quartey, who is a black man, and most of the voice cast and many of the writers are also people of color. But this is not written as a niche show. Rebecca Sugar hasn’t publicly identified as any stripe of queer as of this writing, and she’s partnered with a man, though I know better than to say that means we know anything–and ethnicity-wise she looks white, but she has demonstrated over and over that she believes racial diversity and queer representation belong in mainstream media, even for–ESPECIALLY for–children. Because, as she said above in the quote, we should all grow up knowing we can have that. That we’re people. That we don’t have to wait until our minds have formed around us being “other” before we’re gently coaxed “back” into society. In the interview, she also said some vague things about how she never watched Disney movies thinking that could be her, though I don’t know in what ways she was unable to relate. But I can certainly say I would have grown up feeling more like the world wasn’t someone else’s place I was just trying to live in if the media I consumed in my youth had hinted that people like me were real.

Now I’ve heard tell that Seanan McGuire has written a book with an asexual protagonist. (The book also contains a trans man who is, I believe, a romantic interest.) The author is bisexual (and as far as I know not asexual-spectrum), and this is one of the only novels out there that has not just an asexual character tucked in someone’s pocket somewhere but an asexual protagonist. This is also not a book about the character realizing she’s asexual, nor have I heard that it heavily features that revelation. It just is. As it should be. The question is, did she do it right?

I’ll have to see, by reading it. And even though I’m an asexual woman, obviously I’m not the decision-maker on whether Seanan McGuire has written an asexual character “wrong.” I would certainly be able to read it and say “I wish that hadn’t been there” or “I wish that had been phrased differently” or “just once I’d like to see an asexual character who isn’t also XYZ.” (I withhold judgment until I read it, obviously.) But I must admit that as an asexual woman knowing a bisexual author has included a character of my incredibly underrepresented background, my first thought was “ohhhhh jeez I hope it isn’t terrible.” I feel bad that this was my first thought, because though I’m passably familiar with Seanan McGuire, I’ve never read any of her long fiction. I have no reason not to trust her, and I trust her more than I’d trust a straight person to write aces. And yet that was my knee-jerk reaction. Because I’m used to mainstream fiction taking people I can relate to and framing them as broken, as cold or confused, as villainous, or as needing to learn more about being human. And it isn’t just hurtful to see yourself represented poorly in a story. It’s hurtful to know this is a mainstream presentation and other people are going to be even more likely to think about me that way. I’ve been taught to expect this when non-asexual people try to show the world who I am.

Right now we don’t have enough characters like us in the media to risk getting a large percentage of them wrong. Just like a straight white male character being an utter douchebag in a movie will not make people think differently about straight white men, there does need to be room for non-majority characters to not be perfect people, but since people are establishing lasting impressions of us based on how media portrays us, we need to ask creators to be sensitive to this when they plan their presentation. If you have no exposure to a group but you see them on TV, you generalize–even if someone else has chosen how that group is portrayed without being part of it. We cannot realistically arrange global exposure to every marginalized group, but we can be responsible with how that exposure comes through our media.

When Authors Screw Up

There are lots of articles out there on what you should do if you screw up. Most of them involve instructions on the basics: stop doing the thing, and apologize (authentically) for doing the thing. But what is your role in this business if someone you admire screws up?

I’ve wondered about that because now and then authors I like screw up on social media and it kinda breaks my heart.

Your first instinct is to defend. Someone you like–someone who created something you might have loved–has sinned. Don’t they deserve forgiveness? Don’t they deserve gentle correction instead of the pile-on they’re experiencing? Isn’t it also important what they’ve done well? Can’t we emphasize that?

Well, the answer is no. Now is not the time to emphasize that.

It is the responsibility of the person who screwed up to try to make right, and the way they do so is going to tell you a lot about the kind of person they are. The way you act is your own biz, and I urge you to carefully consider what you’re getting into–and what it says about you–if you defend someone’s terrible behavior just because you like their work.

Here is a list of stuff to keep in mind when this happens.

  1. Liking someone’s work if they have behaved in an unacceptable way does not make you guilty by association.
  2. Liking someone’s work even if it has problematic aspects does not require you to find a way to excuse those aspects before you are “allowed” to like the work as a whole without being a bad person.
  3. You can and should accept that your heroes can believe bad things and can be spreading terrible messages. If they do this, you are not required to abandon them as one of your favorite content creators.
  4. You can and should be able to be critical about your heroes. You can and should be able to agree with those who are calling them out, and if you have something to say on the matter, you may even want to join them in echoing the callout.
  5. If the creator (and perpetrator of the bad message) is worth respecting, they will learn from this experience, not judge critics as bullies and dig their heels in while doubling down on a bad message. You are in the same boat.
  6. It is actually okay to decide you no longer want to support someone who believes/says those things. It may lead you to look at their older work in a larger context and like it less. It may not. Both responses are okay.
  7. You cannot completely separate a creator from their creation. If someone believes racist things, they are likely spreading racist messages even if they don’t mean to, and you may not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it or aren’t sensitive to those messages because of your background. It IS important.
  8. You should look at the actual statements the person made. And you should look at several criticisms of the statement the person made to try to understand why there’s a problem if you don’t immediately see why. You don’t have to agree with the criticism, but you should definitely listen to it before you try to defend.
  9. If someone you like is getting dragged and your knee-jerk reaction is to assume they don’t deserve it, please do not announce that the real problem is the PC agenda, oversensitivity, or people looking to be offended. You must understand that the outrage is real, even if you can’t feel it. Chances are the person who Said the Thing doesn’t understand why it makes people upset either, and judging the group as hysterical, unreasonable, overreacting, or guilty of mob-mentality witch hunting is not going to stop this from happening next time.
  10. It is possible for someone to have worthwhile messages to contribute while having absolutely no business speaking on certain issues. It is possible for an author to say wonderful things about racism while being tone-deaf to the sexism in their work. It is possible for an author to spread great messages of religious tolerance and support while supporting hateful erasure and discrimination toward disabled people. Intersectionality is a thing and if someone is wrong or ignorant about one thing, it is not appropriate to say we need to ignore their ignorance because they’re doing it right on another axis.

I am not going to name names here, but keeping all this in mind, this is how I’ve reacted to bad behavior committed by some of my favorite authors. When an author I enjoyed said a casually racist thing in a very public context, I observed his sincere apology and decided I could still read and support his work, but I remain baffled by his poor judgment and certainly wouldn’t defend it. When an author whose work I was just getting into said something really tone-deaf about women, I decided it was gross (and explained a lot) but that it wasn’t egregious enough that I wanted to disown him from my library or stop reading his books. And when an author made some terribly ignorant, strongly worded statements about the lack of need for diversity in books because we already have all we need and pushing diversified characters is an unnecessary agenda, I observed her unrepentant reframing of the situation and her protest that she can’t be wrong because she has diverse characters too, and I quietly removed several of her books from my wish list. If she thinks the book world is fine the way it is and refuses to listen to the people who don’t feel represented, I’m sad about it, but I don’t want to invite more of her world view into my brain.

I absolutely agreed that all of these people did bad things. They left a terrible taste in my mouth after I enjoyed their work and had no idea they thought like this. The way they react to being called out has a lot to do with whether I want to continue to see their writing. I’m okay with ignorance, especially when the ignorant party acknowledges their ignorance and says they’re working on it. I’m okay with mistakes, especially when the mistake-maker draws more attention to themselves by saying “I did this, it was terrible that I did this, I apologize in a heartfelt manner and I have learned from this.” I’m not okay with buying more books by an author who repeatedly declares that other authors’ voices and other readers’ needs are irrelevant.

And for the record, analyzing and acknowledging problematic aspects of work you like can actually make it more enjoyable. You do not need to defend the parts that are awful (regardless of how intentional or egregious those parts are) to enjoy the rest of the work or the work as a whole. You also do not need to agree with the public outrage to respect that people have a reason to express said outrage. And if you still want to support someone who’s done something bad, that does not require you to defend what they did wrong, nor should you diminish its importance or point at people who are doing worse things.

Look at what the person did and ask yourself, “Do I want to pay this person to talk to me? Will the fact that they believe this infect the other messages they’re sending me? If I was part of the group they’re insulting with this message, would I find it less acceptable?” And it’s okay to be conflicted about it. Like I said, it can be heartbreaking when one of your idols turns out to believe and say horrible things. Your actions regarding how you react to their work post screw-up are up to you, but don’t make the mistake of considering these controversies irrelevant. We do shape the literary world by reacting passionately (for better or for worse) to messages that inspire strong feelings. You should not dismiss or scoff at the importance of these explosions just because you think they don’t really affect you.

Chances are, if you think they aren’t relevant to you–if you won’t learn from others’ mistakes–then they could be you one day.

Why do you write?

“You just want attention.”

Recently I had the misfortune of interacting with someone who claimed my “desire for attention” was the reason I write. In context, the suggestion that I “wanted attention” was an unflattering description; it was framed as being childish, needy, silly, and narcissistic to “want attention” for my work. And it was also suggested that I write as a substitute for “real” human interaction.

Whew! A lot to unpack from that, huh?

Most of what that person said was so ignorant and pointlessly oversimplified that I just didn’t care and remained mildly irritated but mostly just baffled. Really? It’s only immature attention-mongering desires and inability to interact “normally” that can explain why I write? And enjoying when someone likes my work or benefits from it is evidence of self-centeredness or a poorly conceived attempt at a social interaction substitute?

It struck me to wonder after I was faced with this question, though: Hey, why do I write, anyway?

Because I have ideas.

That’s pretty much it.

I had an idea. I wrote it down. I liked writing it down. I like making stuff up.

I like creating worlds. I like creating characters. I like the actual experience of writing. I like entertaining myself with the stories. I’ve gotten ideas for things since I was a tiny child. I didn’t even show the majority of them to anyone at all, though some of them got shown to parents or friends. I just like writing stuff.

But then there’s another layer of enjoyment from sharing a story, sure. If I’ve written something and I entertained someone or they learned a lesson from it or they got valuable information from it or it helped them feel less alone, that’s great. It’s not what motivated me to write, but I’m not going to say positive feedback and knowing I helped someone is irrelevant.

I do think it’s VERY disingenuous to claim that if I appreciate good feedback or like feeling that I helped someone, it’s therefore a hobby I engage in because I’m needy and I have to do this to feel fulfilled.

Not to mention that if writing was the one way I could access approval and self-worth, who the hell would you be to tell me it’s inauthentic, mock-worthy, or pathetic? If something that makes you feel good, needed, productive, or happy is working well for you, it seems kind of mean-spirited and even vindictive to barge into someone’s life and tell them they’re not doing life right. This is irrelevant to me because I do not write for those reasons, but coping mechanisms are a thing, especially for people who are sensitive or have particular needs. There’s no reason to say people who do write because they enjoy the attention and approval they get should be torn away from it through belittling comments about how that person should be striving toward fulfillment. Especially if you’re not a writer and you don’t understand what could be rewarding about it.

It’s just so gross to imagine that anyone out there wants to characterize something like writing as a cry for help from a desperate person who wants “empty” attention, or that people like this want to shame people who have different or less-than-perfect coping methods. What exactly is so bad about attention? Why is it so frequently categorized as vapid or even pathological to want something you do to get attention?

Actually, don’t assholes also frequently make fun of people who don’t get attention (or the “right” kind of attention), characterizing you as a social failure or a hilarious loner regardless of whether you desire whatever is considered a “normal” amount of social contact? (Because if you’re not very social and you’re fine with that, they’ll still assume you would be interacting with friends more than you do if you had any, and make fun of you for not having enough friends or not being likable.) I can’t even tell you how often people see that I like to read and write and do things on the computer and react to my choices with “HAHAHAH IT’S FUNNY THAT SHE PRETENDS SHE’D RATHER BE HOME READING THAN OUT AT THE CLUB, BUT SHE DOESN’T WANT TO ADMIT THAT SHE’S TOO AWKWARD OR WOULD BE EMBARRASSED AT HOW NO ONE WANTS TO HIT ON HER ETC.” You know, because if I actually do want to spend the evening at home, I’m making excuses because I know I would fail at being coveted and popular in a social setting. What I get from this is you’re supposed to flourish from getting attention, but you’re never supposed to be seen deliberately doing anything that suggests you want it.

I think it’s pretty cool when people like what I’ve written. I don’t do it because I’m desperately hungry for their attention and have nothing else worthwhile to live for in my life, no. But writing things people like and appreciating it when people like them is not ridiculous.

I can certainly think of some worse ways to spend one’s hours on the planet. Particularly, spending a bunch of time criticizing how others spend THEIR time.

Just Didn’t Connect

Sometimes when someone doesn’t like a book, they can explain exactly why. They might have a problem with the content or the message. They may have thought the character motivations were unclear or preposterous. They could have found the writing style awkward or dense or simplistic. And sometimes, when this someone is a person evaluating your work, it can be helpful to you if they explain their why.

But the most difficult thing to hear might just be “I just didn’t connect.”

Sometimes this a euphemism for “I thought your book was terrible for X reason or Y reason, but I either can’t or am not willing to relay those reasons to you, either for fear of hurting you or for fear of looking like a jerk (or both).”

But more often, it really is what it sounds like. The person just doesn’t like books like yours. Maybe they prefer books they can personally relate to, and yours isn’t relatable for them. Maybe they have trouble suspending disbelief for your science fiction concept, or don’t find romances compelling, or can’t drum up any enthusiasm for whether your fantasy novel’s questing party can recover the world-saving artifact. Maybe they have a particular difficulty connecting to books that are written in third person, or in present tense.

And this “I just didn’t connect to it” response goes all the way up to editors at big publishing houses and all the way down to readers deciding what to buy.

We all have preferences. It’s doubtful that anyone who reads is going to say they are equally interested in all well-written books. And unless you personally continue to “give a fair chance” to books that open with action that doesn’t grab you and books whose descriptions sound pretty boring to you, you should understand why this happens. Agents and editors frequently have to re-read books they sign multiple times, and both types of publishing professionals are gambling on whether readers will like what they like, because agents don’t get paid at all unless they sell the book to a publisher and publishers won’t make back the money they spent on producing the book if readers don’t like it enough to pay money for it.

Publishing works the way it does because readers work the way they do. Except for situations like school reading or other assignments, we generally don’t have any obligation to read things we don’t want to read, and publishing industry professionals are in the same boat. If they don’t want to read it, they probably won’t be able to convince others that they want to read it.

So don’t go into publishing, into story-writing, into creative careers in general if you think subjectivity doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. Don’t expect “equal” or “fair” treatment, or for anyone to humor you. No one is obligated to read a predetermined amount of your book before deciding they don’t want to read more, and no one is obligated to defend liking a book that you think isn’t as good as yours. People will like things for reasons you don’t agree with or don’t understand or don’t have in common with them. It could be you’re writing stuff that not many people are interested in, or it could be that you’re writing it in a way that doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with, but either way if you’re encountering lukewarm interest and “didn’t connect” responses every time you attempt to engage readers, you might try asking yourself what makes YOU connect.

What is it about the books you love that made you keep reading them after page 1? What is it about the books you love that made them work so well for you? What was it about the books you love that makes you call them the books you love? How did those authors draw you in? You might think you’re doing the same thing they are, or doing it as well as they are, but actually look at what they’re doing. What do they do on page one? What do they do over the course of their story? What do your favorite authors have in common? You may be skipping some steps. You may be including or not including elements that turn people on or off.

Or you may be showing it to people who just didn’t connect and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You should always look at your material first, think about what you might be able to improve, but it isn’t always your fault. It isn’t always an actual flaw or problem with your work. You should be open to the idea that it might be, but not eternally convinced that it must be if some readers tell you they don’t connect.

There isn’t one right way to write a book, but if your first tries aren’t getting you the results you want and you’re determined to reach those results, try doing what worked for the authors you like. It works a lot better than blaming your audience or throwing up your hands and quitting. And it feels a lot better too. I promise.

Video: Critique of Romance Tropes

Here’s something a little different from my usual: I’m offering a video about romance tropes in fiction and how they can sometimes send damaging messages to people about what real-life romance is and what place it should occupy in our lives. Informed primarily from an aromantic perspective–meaning that I’m a person who rarely sees herself in fictional narratives and is affected more negatively by certain messages about romance the way it is currently handled in fiction.

The big takeaway from this video is that we need more important friendships in our fiction! And fewer assumptions about the inevitability of romance and the heteronormative assumption!


New Video: Hints for Drafting Writers

Most of my videos so far have been about publishing and approaching agents and stuff, but I haven’t done much with actual writing technique and the earlier stages of drafting your book. Since I have done a lot of beta reading for authors, I thought I’d share some advice that I’ve found myself repeating for the authors I help on nearly every book.

This video addresses common pitfalls and teaches certain techniques for authors to use in polishing their novels, with particular attention paid to how to begin your novel. It also includes tips on characterization, dialogue, providing background information, pacing, story elements, and even punctuation. Enjoy!

New video: Dialogue Tags

My new video covers five reasons why I recommend against creative speech tags used in place of “said” and “asked.” I make my case for why conversations between characters should stand on their own without the tags or adverbs combined with the tags competing for attention against the actual conversation.


On Frame Stories

What’s a frame story, you ask? Well, it’s a fictional book that’s primarily written to shove the opinion or agenda of the author down the reader’s throat. The story takes a backseat to the message, and the characters either exist as mouthpieces for that message or become examples of What Happens to the Bad People Who Don’t Live By Our Philosophy.

While it’s fine for a novel to have a message or to teach good values, they should always first focus on the storytelling and the characters who are experiencing the plot. And furthermore, if you have an important message that you want to impart to others through fiction, it will actually be much more effective if it’s funneled through an authentic and enjoyable story. If you as an author find yourself more interested in inspiring people on what to believe than you are in telling the characters’ story, you should just be honest and write prescriptive nonfiction.

Many books with a religious or spiritual theme get this wrong. Every character is a plant—meaning they were specifically invented by the author to serve a singular purpose or “represent” something—and most of their featured dialogue seems rehearsed, overly organized, too structured, and preachy. When the action stops frequently so a major character can philosophize, preach, or reminisce on some topic that illustrates exactly what the story is about, you’re probably dealing with a frame story. It’s also really common for characters in frame stories to have very few defining characteristics beyond their role in the story and very little irrelevant back story. (Okay, I know nobody likes infodumps about characters’ back stories, but it’s very frustrating for me whenever it’s 100% clear that a character started living on page one. Unless they were BORN on page one.)

What’s especially troubling is when you agree with or really like some of the spiritual or philosophical messages. The very popular Left Behind series is a Christian fiction bestseller that depicts the End Times and is pitched as an exciting post-apocalyptic (literally!) future for what’s in store if you are not a believer. And while it sold millions, most of the Christian people I know who read it disliked it because the characters were constantly launching into their conversion stories and persuasive page-long essays about why being a Christian is vital. Considering nearly all of their audience is already Christian, they are (literally, again!) preaching to the choir.

And what about books like The Celestine Prophecy? It’s sold as fiction, and presents a New Age philosophy imparted through various revelations that the protagonist discovers while on an adventure. You know what? I’ve read it. And I can’t remember the main character’s name without looking it up. The story clearly wasn’t about the characters or what they were doing. It was about a deliberate attempt to engage the reader in a belief system or philosophy. I liked several of the insights. I remember those. I thought the story around it was unnecessary. And the sales pitch for its upcoming insight (released in the next book, of course) was blatant. The author might have made a loyal reader out of me if he’d either sold his insights in a tight little philosophy book OR written a story to fill in the frame.

But then there’s the question of how you’re supposed to use positive messages in your book without making the novel a frame story. It’s actually very simple, and I’ll emphasize that I’m not saying books shouldn’t have messages. I’m saying they absolutely must read like stories (not lectures) and absolutely must contain people (not puppets).

For example, the book Holes has a pretty straightforwardly anti-racist message in it. The story bounces back and forth between the past and the present, and in both time periods a relationship between a black person and a white person undergoes challenges and shows how they’re better together. In the past, it’s a white woman and a black man who fall in love, and the Old West town isn’t willing to stand for it. In the present, it’s a white boy and a black boy who form a lasting friendship and finally win against the authority that’s beating them down.

But the main characters—and even some of the secondary and tertiary supporting characters—have depth and history so you know where they’re coming from; they have personal struggles and idiosyncratic quirks; they are about way more than representing their race. And nobody ever stops the action to give us a nice speech on why it’s so important that black people and white people get along. (And it should be noted that their races also are not at all invisible. It’s not one of those “they said this one’s white and this one’s black, but we wouldn’t have known from context otherwise” kinds of “I don’t see color” books. Their racial backgrounds are part of the characters. They just aren’t their defining characteristic or sole identity.)

How about one of my favorite teen books: Stargirl. Now, this is clearly a “be yourself, don’t change for anyone” story. Is it a frame story? Not even close.

What’s interesting is how overt this message is without being a frame story. It’s the characters that make it special—Stargirl is certainly quirky in a manic-pixie-dream-girl way, with her ukulele playing, weird clothes, and tendency to change her name to whatever suits her. But she’s more than that, too. She’s special because she pays attention to what other people feel, and reacts to it; she’s special because she isn’t “trying to be an individual” with her stunts so much as honestly being cut from a different cloth; she’s special because when you see her weirding everyone out by cheering for the opposite team as well as her own team, you know her well enough to understand why she does it. When she goes through her self-exploration phase in the opposite way that most teens do—trying to be more conventional, for the sake of love—you don’t get a tidy wrap-up at the end where everyone’s learned their lessons and now we all know to be ourselves. We understand why fundamentally changing yourself for someone else is not about love, because we see the consequences as they take their toll on these characters. We don’t feel like we just watched an after-school special about individuality. We feel the loss and we understand the people who lost. And that’s what the book is about. You’ll come away with a message, but you’ll never feel like the author tricked you into following a character’s story just so they could make them give lip service to their own agenda.

The key to presenting a message through fiction is always going to lie in the authenticity of your characters. Make us understand them and why everything in their lives has led them to believe what they do, and we’ll believe in them enough to want to listen to you. But make their personalities secondary to the message you’re piping in from a different universe, and I promise you we’ll feel it.