Killing Straw Men from the Authorial Pulpit

Have you ever written a straw man in a story? He’s the opponent you set up for the purpose of easily defeating, usually in order to destroy a belief or opinion he holds that you as an author despise.

Let’s say that you hate onions (as I do), so the bad guy in your story is an onion farmer who decides that a law must be passed that all people must eat onions at every meal. You write him as being ridiculously vile, even maniacal. Then, your hero comes along and destroys him and his onion farm.

Since I am an onion-hating author, that story would be a lot of fun to write, but it’s not a good idea. I would be preaching against onions by setting up a ridiculous person who gets thrashed by my hero. This would be a very preachy kind of writing. It’s an onion-hating sermon, and most readers (except maybe other onion haters who applaud the farmer’s demise) will see it as a thinly-veiled, sermonizing attack.

In author circles, much has been written about “preachy” stories, especially in Christian-themed novels. Yet, I have seen just as much preachy writing in secular stories as I have seen in Christian stories, maybe more, so Christians aren’t the only ones trying to get our morals, or lack thereof, into our books.

Is it wrong to “preach” in our stories? I think not. We just have to learn to allow our stories and our characters to live out the “sermons” rather than delivering our points in obvious pulpit-pounding scenarios. When our readers close our books, we want them to feel the themes at a heart level and desire to live out the value of the story. If there is no real value, then the book isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

If, however, the theme is pounded out in a soapbox fashion, readers will be turned off, or perhaps they will even turn against your ideas.

Any thoughts on preachy writing or straw men?

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10 replies

  1. My goal with my current writing is to argue for a point of view I disagree with, and find a viable middle ground between my belief and the viewpoint of the main character.

    Sometimes I wonder if this is wise, as I am sympathizing with my opposition.

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  2. A few years ago I found that I had a tendency to do something similar to this – not necessarily creating a straw man to represent something I oppose, but fashioning villains that could very much be described as “Obviously Evil Person X.” I started making sure that my villains always held at least one significant belief or ideal that I agreed with. This approach has helped me in two ways: by forcing me to humanize my antagonists, resulting in better characters all around, and by allowing me to better explore personally relevant themes.

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  3. This is a good subject to bring up. I know that secular stories definitely preach. I’ve seen several stories use a man who is against homosexuality as a straw man.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  4. I’ve been guilty of this in the past, and I’ve tried to get past it somewhat.
    One “trick” for us speculative authors is to make something up that parallels the real-world problem, so instead of an onion farmer, it could be a melroon farmer. This might make it possible for the onion loving readers to enjoy the book. By worldbuilding, the issue can seem much more organic for the world. (Zootopia did this decently, Supergirl did not.)
    Another thing I’ve seen is stereotypical straw men. I’ve seen quite a few cases where, if the villain disagreed with the author on one thing, the character would be fully evil. This tends to annoy me. Just because a character believes that humans are superior to aliens doesn’t mean that human will want to exterminate aliens. Even if s/he wants to exterminate aliens, s/he might still risk his/her life to save a human child.

    I’ve also used sub-villains and even characters who were good but on the opposite side as the hero(es). This helps to avoid straw men since I have a good character who might hold similar beliefs to the main villain, but this person, though siding with the antagonists, lives with some morals.

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    • Good comment, Jessi. Yet, melroons aren’t nearly as bad as onions. Even though the Federation has banned them in nearly every galaxy, they just don’t compare to onions. Thanks for trying, though. 🙂

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  5. One way to avoid straw men is to make just about every character deep, and their thoughts and actions realistic. They should also change and grow as the story progresses, but not always directly for or against the author’s views.

    One of my characters, for instance, is an atheist and a scientist. He’s multidimensional in that he is a good person that tries to use science to help others. But he doesn’t at first realize that he can be subtly arrogant and demeaning at times, especially to a Christian he later befriends(not just about religion, either, but also art, and aspects of her he finds eccentric). He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the way he acts, because he sees himself as a good person with good intentions. In his mind, he isn’t being demeaning, just someone who states facts and has a low tolerance for ignorance and injustice. His lack of introspection eventually causes him to make some bad decisions.

    Rather than have him become completely hateful of God by the end of the story, or completely loving toward God, I will probably have him become someone that has gained more kindness and respect toward others with different beliefs, and he will probably think that spiritual things are real. But he probably won’t love God or follow him.

    I did this because I didn’t want this character to be the stereotypical strawman of a jerkish atheist, or one that simply exists to become saved. That way, my character can still challenge the way atheists think without preaching at them.

    It’s also best to do thorough research to know what the other side actually thinks. If an author was against onions, for instance, and wrote a story featuring onion farmers, he shouldn’t just assume onion farmers eat nothing but onions. He should actually do research and write the onion farmers in a reasonably believable manner, so that he doesn’t come off as ignorant.

    Also, even if the point of the story is to make people more open to Christianity, it may seem less preachy if Christianity isn’t the only focus. My atheist character had far more problems than sneering at Christianity, even though he thought he had everything right. Atheistic readers might continue enjoying the story to see how the character’s other issues affect his life, until finally they see how that ties in with his need for salvation.

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