Recently, there was a quote going around about how late night shows no longer contained comedy, because comedians can’t get away with mocking anything anymore. Instead, they make political comments that agree with their audience’s bias and then pause for their audience’s reaction.
But instead of laughter, they get applause.
I was thinking about that while I was watching a new (to me) show. Friends had recommended it. The premise looked amusing. The show was funny. Lots of real comedy.
But occasionally, there would be some bit of Liberal doctrine tossed to the audience in exactly the way a story normally might use comedy.
In other words: It wasn’t part of the plot. It wasn’t part of the story. It wasn’t character development. It didn’t matter or affect the outcome. It was merely standing all by itself as if it were waiting for a high five in exactly the way that comedy gets a laugh.
Watching this, I thought: and that is what we mean when we say we don’t like message fiction.
Many people who discuss message fiction seem to confuse the term with “fiction that contains a message.”
Most fiction contains some kind of message–at least if it is done well. When I used to read SF as a kid, most of it contained some kind of message. Some of it I agreed with. Some I did not. Some of it I agreed with then but would not now
But I don’t think this took away from it being a good story.
But in a good story, the message matters–and by matters, I mean it matters to the story.
The theme and the message were reflected by the action and the character and the plot. The author often took the time to make up a story where the outcome of the story proved the author’s point. I remember reading stories that were both pro and against Socialism, for instance. Some made it look bad; others made it look good. But the author went to the trouble to tie the issue into the rest of the experience.
You might complain, “I don’t think that plot point or outcome was realistic,” but within the confines of the story, it worked.
But at some point, social commentary stopped being something that an author carefully worked in, showing the good and the bad, but bringing the story to a conclusion that supported their point and started being something that was just tossed in to make it look as if that particular thing was absolutely normal.
Except that it is always something that is not normal to everyone–only to some–and it is included not in a way that fits it into the fabric of the story, but in a way that makes it stand out, like a joke waiting for a reaction.
As if everyone is supposed to pretend that it is perfectly normal while actually high-fiving each other behind the backs of the dim folks for how subtly they slipped it in. Only it wasn’t. So that to those who don’t agree, it feels like a poke in the eye, and for anyone who does agree but doesn’t feel like sticking it to the other guy, it just seems to hang there for no reason.
Let’s use an example from the recent movie Endgame. The scene I am going to speak about was very short and does not affect any plot item, so you should be able to read beyond this point even if you haven’t seen Endgame yet and wish to.
There is a scene where a counseling group is going on, a group of men are discussing how they are trying to get along with their lives after the events of the previous movie. One of them mentions that he is trying to date again, and he casually mentions that his date was a he.
Now, if the major character in the room talking with these men had been Iron Man or the Hulk or Ant Man, the scene would not have stood out. I don’t think Iron Man would care heck who someone was dating. They could date a cow, and he’d be for it as long as everyone involved was happy.
But that isn’t good enough for the Degenerati.
Because having a tolerant person be tolerant isn’t putting across the message “this is perfectly normal.” It’s just a scene.
So the character leading the chat group had to be the one character in the movie who would, according to the logic of character, tend to not be okay with modern ethics–the character who still has the ethics of a man from the 1940s.
Even though having that character calmly interact with modern ethics without comment violates everything about that character. The whole point of the character is he’s a 1940s military man. If he arbitrarily and for no reason drops his Boy Scout stance and acts like Iron Man and Ant Man–for no reason, without any kind of scene that shows that something has happened to change his mind–the character has been compromised. He is now not the character he is supposed to be.
And that, folks, is “Message fiction”.
When the message is more important than the fiction and has to break and damage the fiction to forward the message.
Because a good writer, like those who wrote the SF of yesteryear, would have shown the contrast of human nature. Had they written this scene, they would have had Tony or Scott Lang heading the circle of men. They would have shown their casual acceptance of modern values, and then they would have had the character from the 40s walk by with a sour look on his face. They would have done this to show the logical traits of the different characters and to showcase the difference between the society seventy some odd years ago and society today.
Everyone would have recognized that all the characters were true to their personality and background, and the scene would have felt authentic. Played right, it could have come over supporting the modern view, but in a way that felt authentic.
Instead, they pushed the character aside in the interest of the message.
Because there is no kick in having approval from someone everyone knows approves.
They wanted approval from Captain America.
That’s just one example, but it bugged me because they were damaging the character to get their applause moment.
Characters seem real to us when they act authentically…when they do those little things that a real person would do if they were like that–things like Captain America tipping a hat, holding a door for ladies, or any of the other things that men would have automatically done in those days that most do not do today. When writers throw in these authentic little things, we automatically feel them, even if we don’t notice them.
There was not, so far as I recall, a scene where Iron Man was asked his opinion on a man dating a man, but I think no one would be the least bit surprised if he was completely untroubled by the idea, because that kind of attitude is a logical side effect of the life he leads and the kind of guy he is. He would not care what a person did with his private life, nor would the idea of such a thing bother him.
We know this because we know his character.
In exactly the same way, we all know that Captain America should care. No one thought that way when he was in the army, least of all an upright Boy Scout type.
Could he change his mind? Sure. Real people do. But to have him change his mind, you would need to show something happening to change his mind. Something convincing him that the modern outlook was the preferable one.
But that isn’t there.
Instead, they just took the Big Boy Scout and showed him already approving of something they felt l that character would not approve of–as if, by showing him approving, they could deceive their audience into believing their message.
Brief note: When I say that Cap should have had a reaction, it didn’t need to be a bad reaction. It could be a kind reaction. It could be a “oh, this crazy future world” eye roll. The range of reactions he might have had is enormous and does not require him to be rude. Reaction doesn’t mean negative reaction…but it does mean acknowledging that this is something that most other times and places have not thought was normal.
The sad things is…
Message fiction doesn’t work.
Oh, I am not saying that it doesn’t work some of the time or on some people. Of course, it does, but for others, it is backfiring.
I see people who agreed with certain Liberal talking points ten years ago who do not agree with them now. Why? Partially, because they are spreading it too thick.
If I work hard and incorporate a message into a story in a way that fits, if I show Iron Man and Ant Man and the Hulk accepting a modern attitude while Captain American does not, people feel the legitimacy of that. They accept the ideas easily, because they are slid in there in a way that feels real.
But the moment that I start bending and breaking characters to put in my little applause moments, people begin to balk. Oh, not all people or all the time, but at a fundamental level, they begin feel that something is wrong–the story has been violated.
And once they notice that the story is violated, they stop automatically buying the message.
And once they stop buying it, they begin to develop a kneejerk, allergic reaction to the artificial message.
Some of them actually turn on the idea all together–ideas that they had previously supported.
So the worst thing you can do if you support an idea is message fic it.
You undercut your own message.
Let’s go back to storytelling with a purpose while we still can.
This obsession with taking everything as if it were a message has already stopped the laughter. Sooner or later, there won’t even be applause.