One of those traditions involves a prohibition against the three E’s. Fiction is most emphatically not about educating, exhorting, or even empowering readers. [See what Harry Potter’s US editor Arthur K. Levine has to say about empowerment in the companion article on my website.]
If there is some topic about which you want to either teach or preach, you can do that in non-fiction. But if you choose fiction as your genre, then it is all about another trinity of E’s. At every moment, what we as fiction writers must do is entertain, enchant, and enthrall. That’s the goal in every line, every scene, every chapter. Along the way our readers may pick up some information that they didn’t have before, but if so, that’s simply a bonus. And if they are inspired, well, that’s even better.
But if you sit down to write your novel with the express purpose of informing readers, you will bore them. And if you sit down with the express purpose of inspiring them, I can almost guarantee you will fail.
Your task as a storyteller, a writer of fiction, is singular, if not simple. It is to make your story world so real, so compelling, that readers want to crawl inside and experience it right alongside your characters. And then you need to stand back and allow readers to discover for themselves any meaning that there is to be found. You can’t force feed them your passions; you can only cook the food, lay the table, and hope that they like what you've given them to eat.
To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which I’ve clutched like a life preserver as an Ohio Buckeye struggling to keep my head above the backwaters in the rural Georgia town where I have made my home for years. Though Lee’s novel has many strong themes about racial equality, sexual violence, and standing up for what is right, even when it’s unpopular or dangerous, she doesn’t try to teach a history lesson or preach a sermon about any of that. Instead, she lets us experience all this through Scout and her father Atticus Finch as they struggle through their day-to-day lives in a 1930’s Alabama town.
It’s true that there are many novels for young people that do impart information along the way. Take historical fiction; I’m dating myself here, but how many of us learned about the American Revolution by reading Johnny Tremaine in school?
To take a more contemporary example, look at any one of the many wonderful historical novels written by two-time Newbery medalist Karen Cushman. The author has often been praised for her well-researched, authentic historical detail, so kids can certainly learn a lot about time periods from the Middle Ages to the McCarthy Era from her books. But not a single page in any of her novels reads like a lesson from a history textbook. Instead, Cushman brings the time period to life through lively writing in chapters where her characters don’t act like they know they’re living in the past, because to them, they’re not! This is just ordinary life for them, so any history readers pick up is almost by osmosis, as they are caught up in Cushman’s plots.
Inspiration doesn’t always come in the form you expect either. Look at the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. [SPOILER ALERT: do not read further if you haven’t finished all seven books.]
The Deathly Hallows. Her primary purpose at the end was to tell a gripping, emotionally-charged story in the scene where Harry walks to his death—a death he freely though painfully chooses, in order to defeat Voldemort and save Harry’s family, his friends, Hogwarts, and indeed, the entire world, Muggle and magic alike. Rowling didn’t try to explicitly teach a message here on the power of love and sacrifice, though that is implicit in every line. She could even have quoted John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (NRSV translation)
But Rowling left the teaching of ethics and the quoting of scripture to others whose job that is. She is a novelist, and her charge is different. Her task—and that of all of us who write fiction—is to put our characters in situations where they are forced to make often impossible choices and then deal with the consequences. It is up to readers to decide what to glean from those consequences. Are they "just" messy, funny, sobering, joyous, or heart-breaking? Or is there any redemptive, transformative meaning to be found therein?
Our job as writers is only this: tell a damn good story. Beyond that, we must trust readers to get the rest.