Fiction and Agenda Aren’t Compatible

I have a finished draft!

New Year’s resolution: complete a draft before I turn thirty.

Done – like four months early!

I will probably take these four months to revise the thing, and then I’ll get to the sending it out to agents sometime around my bday (end of November). In addition to a draft of the actual manuscript, I’ve also got one of my query letter done. I’ll need to do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis soon ish, but I’m pretty close to making a real go at trying to get published!


As I was nearing the end, I felt a little more confident talking to people about what I was writing because it didn’t feel as much like their opinions would impact my ability to finish.

You see, sometimes people say things that make me think I should change everything or they say things that make me feel like I’m far more finished then I am, so I get complacent and don’t work at it.

Aside from how people’s words impact the writing, it’s funny what people think.

The most common thing I got in talking to people was, “What’s your agenda?” They knew I was writing about a minority character and the church, so I kind of get it, but it’s actually a hilarious question to me, because I tried incredibly hard not to have an agenda. In On Writing, Stephen King explained that his process in getting a story started and drafted was taking a few characters and putting them into a situation that’s riddled with conflict. Ex: Intelligent guy who is innocent ends up in prison for life. Right? And then Stephen King lets the character work through that conflict.

I’m not quite so relaxed about it as Mr. King is; I definitely do some plotting, but it has little to do with an agenda. I hold a strong belief that agenda actually has NO PLACE in fiction. My plotting has more to do with what would happen or what would be cool or terrible or fill-in-the-blank if it happened. Or how can I make ________ that happens in a few chapters even plausible? Can I embed something in chapter 3 to bring it all together? Also, I consider which parts of the story haven’t I told that would fill out the corners of the picture a little bit or unlurr-ify certain characters.

Then, I write and research. I do both at the same time because I find they inspire each other.

In researching, I often found that what a character would do isn’t anything like what I planned for him to do. Sadly, my characters initially tend to be passive, like luggage being carried through a plot-driven story, so the research helps me figure out what sort of proactive things my characters would do, and the outline morphs a little bit.

Because fiction, to me, isn’t primarily about what the author wants to communicate. It isn’t about theme. It isn’t about agenda.

It’s about empathy.

It’s about people.

It’s about emotions.

I don’t believe in deciding what the reader should get from a story before I’ve written it. In fact, I don’t believe the author actually has much say in what readers take away from any given story. I’ve learned that from the blog, here. People see what they see, and it is often incredibly different from what I thought I communicated.

Takeaway From Readers Seeing What They See: Readers push their own agendas onto authors just as often as authors push agendas on readers.

Empathy should always trump agenda in fiction. Empathy for the reader. Empathy for the characters.

And empathy for the writer.

Empathy should probably trump agenda in life too.


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