Why Your Character Should Never Stand on a Soapbox

By Sean Platt

black man preaching in street

Today I’d like to talk about why your character should never stand on a soapbox.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

Now it’s very easy when you’re writing to insert yourself into the story. How could you not?

One of the things I love about being a writer so much is that it forces you to truly know yourself.

It is like taking snapshots of your world with the keyboard.

It’s making memories.

It’s evaluating what you think and how you see the world. Every single character, every line of dialogue, every stage direction is coming from you.

Even if someone is saying something that you vehemently disagree with, it doesn’t matter. That thought still originated from your brain.

But you never want to lose sight of your story.

You need to speak directly to the reader through your characters.

So that means you have to treat that relationship with respect. You can’t really take advantage of it. You can’t use it as a platform for propaganda. You can, but then you’re not truly telling a story, you’re drafting a piece of propaganda.

And those are two very different things.

So you never want to intentionally or accidentally project your own beliefs, opinions or ideas into the story, unless it’s done in a really organic way that is true to that character.

monk in robe with hands held up in prayerSocial, political, religious beliefs, they need to come from your characters and always be in context with the story, and never directly from you and never preachy.

If you have a character who just basically stands on a soapbox and is sitting there pontificating, basically standing in as an orator for you and all of your ideals, that’s just bad writing, and it really turns a lot of readers off.

And what you want is return readers.

Now if you have strong opinions, that’s totally fine, and you can insert them in the story. Just do it in an intelligent way that makes you a fair storyteller.

Because of course, your history is going to inform the way that you write and the things that your characters believe and say and their behavior.

But you need to identify it when it happens and make sure that the story itself is stable without that stuff.

So how to actually make this happen.

My best advice here is just to get through the first draft.

I wouldn’t worry at all about how much of yourself you’re inserting into the story during this round 1, sloppy copy, get it out of your head draft.

Now, I think you should have an overall awareness, just because as a storyteller it makes you stronger if you realize that you’re doing this.

But go ahead and do what you need to do.

Spill your thoughts. Get it all out there.

Because when you’re going back through it, you may cut 80% of it, but there’s a couple of really great gems that wouldn’t have been present in the draft if you were super editing yourself with every line.

I would definitely get it all out and then look for it in your revision.

The longer you can set it aside between passes, I think the more this is naturally going to come out.

So, when you’re writing that first draft, you’re kind of just emptying your mind. If you finish the draft and then go immediately back to the beginning, a lot of that stuff is still fresh, there’s no distance between you as the creator and you as the recipient.

And you want to read it as fresh as possible.

Normally there’s not a lot of time between my passes, so there doesn’t need to be. But if you’re trying to rinse this kind of stuff out, then the fresher your perspective, the better I think.

And you can also give your work to others to read.

couple standing back to back enjoying readingLike if you’re not real certain, you may not want to give a rough, rough draft, but maybe alpha before your book goes to beta and you just have a handful of readers that you really trust, and you’re blunt with them

You say, hey look, I feel like maybe I put too much of X, Y or Z in it. There’s a little bit of my own personal opinion. What do you think?

Or you could take the other tack which is give it to them and just say honestly, tell me what you think, and don’t frontload them with the fact that there may be too much there. If they tell you that on their own, then you absolutely know it’s true.

Just be careful with time and place, and be aware of this tendency in other people’s work.

If you’re watching a TV show or a movie, or you’re reading a book and you see a really heavy hand from the author where it basically feels like the characters are standing on a soapbox, that’s bad writing.

Be aware of it.

Even justify somebody’s assumptions by going to look at this book’s reviews. I bet you’ll see a lot of one starts there that are saying things like the author was just a little too preachy for me.

It is something that turns readers off, not just off of that book but like forever.

Toss the soapbox unless your character is a preacher, or you want to court some hate.… Click To Tweet

You want balance.

Now it doesn’t mean you can’t have your opinions or create powerful work. 12 is a good example within our own catalog where yes, there’s some very strong things that we’re saying. There are some very strong opinions that we have.

But we’re dealing with all sides of the issues, with a lot of delicacy.

I think that’s what you want to aim for as a storyteller.

You want your reader to believe that you’re honest, always, then they trust your work. I hope you make your work as honest as possible and get your opinions in there without getting up on a soapbox. 

Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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