How do you convert philosophical ideas into fiction?
November 18, 2018 7:31 AM   Subscribe

I've always been very impressed by breakdowns of stories in various media, and how different philosophical views are explored in them by way of characters and plot. How can I integrate such depth of thought into my own fiction writing?

When I actually think of doing this, I find a massive chasm between 'high thought' and fiction that I cannot cross. My own writing is usually devoid of any deeper meaning or messaging, and at most, it riffs off of certain feelings or emotions.

How do people integrate philosophical or ideological concepts into their fiction without it looking transparent or phoney?
posted by Senza Volto to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
There’s a FANTASTIC old book on this called The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri that finally answered this question for me... but only after a couple readings.
posted by johngoren at 7:44 AM on November 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

A sidenote: your writing already has ideological underpinnings in it - if you have a character living in a society, what does that character do, see, say, and value? Who do they interact with, and how does that go? What happens when they encounter a problem? You've already written these scenes, and shown people the politics of your world (politics is just "how do decisions get made?"). These are invisible to you, just as water is invisible to the fish.

So the trick is to notice the water. Look at your work, and pick an interaction, and give it the opposite outcome. Take an approving word, and make it disapproving. There are any number of random number generators online - if it worked for Philip K Dick it can work for you. Whatever it takes, force it out of the comfortable path it was going on, see if that bothers you, and ask yourself why that is.

Then, when you start to see how your political and philosophical worldview already informs your work (I will bet you ten bucks it does), then you can figure out how to have *other* ideologies and philosophies inform it.
posted by Mogur at 9:14 AM on November 18, 2018 [8 favorites]

Read more novels that have explicit ideological points of view and watch how they do it. Recently, I thought The Power by Naomi Alderman was a great example of this - and she was mentored by Margaret Atwood, who does it well too.

Think about the points you want to make, or the ideas you want to explore, and how you can make/explore them through the choices any fiction writer makes - who the characters are (who your protagonist is), what choices they make and what are the results of those choices? What does the world “do” to them? What are the obstacles they face? What do they talk about?
posted by lunasol at 11:47 AM on November 18, 2018

Also, I think writing that emotional is not necessarily at odds with writing that explores philosophical issues. The study of philosophy may be dry, but these issues play out in ways that are very real and emotional for people.

The Good Place tv show is a pretty literal example of this, but your writing doesn’t need to be that explicit about the issues it’s exploring to be effective (actually, I’d argue that The Good Place is effective despite its explicitness and only works because of the medium and the extreme talents of the writing staff).
posted by lunasol at 11:53 AM on November 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would recommend the Writing Excuses podcast by Brandon Sanderson and co.

I think as long as you’re not writing a polemic (nothing wrong will good ole fashioned polemics though), it will come across as sincere and not phoney.
The theme gets expressed through the characters, plot, or setting. I think maybe... theme is just “things you think about while writing” + “things the reader will think about while reading it.”

The cliche advice is show dont tell but I personally “show and tell” is better. Lots of literature like Catch 22 just straight up tells us “war is bad” in addition to “showing” through the story. There’s a lot of room in between the Lorax and a Teju Cole novel.
It depends on the theme. If you think your story doesn’t have meaning... is there a specific idea or conflict you care deeply about that you haven’t put into your writing yet?
posted by cricketcello at 9:05 PM on November 18, 2018

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