Every story has theme, whether you intend it or not. Or at least, that’s what you learn to decipher as an English major. Some stories are pretty shallow, and it might seem like they don’t have any message at all; but it might be the healing power of love, or the honor in sacrifice, or the humility of forgiveness. These messages can be personal and based entirely on the specific lives of these characters, with an application for all of us in our own personal lives.
But sometimes a message is more political, more universal, having more to do with the workings of society than with specific relationships. Neither kind of message is better, and both may tend to show up even without your specific design.
Which is why you have to be careful about allegory.
Allegory is when the elements of your story (characters, settings, conflicts) are symbols or metaphors for other concepts. If you write a story that is actually about the United States and the Vietnam War, then it’s not an allegory; but if you write a story about the fantasy nation of Huron and the War of Ten Kings which is structurally or symbolically similar to the Vietnam War, then that is an allegory.
Allegory can be a powerful literary tool that can deepen your story and allow you to send a powerful (and relevant) message without being preachy. It’s also a great way to invent conflicts that feel resonant and realistic, especially when you’re working with made-up fantasy concepts that otherwise would not be interesting to many people.
But there is a danger here. Sometimes allegory shows up without you necessarily intending it; you want to tell a story about prejudice against mutants in your world, and suddenly someone thinks you’re writing about racism or homophobia even if you hadn’t planned that at all. Or sometimes you do intend it, but then this specific character on the side of the mutants says something that people in that real world conflict take offense at, because they assume this character is speaking for them (due to their allegorical parallels).
You can be quick to say in real life that the message wasn’t your intention, or that clearly the specifics of the conflict are very different—but within the work itself, it will always be there for people to read into it. You can’t control what people will think, and you have to accept that you probably will offend somebody out there no matter what you do. But if you’re a decent human being, you probably don’t want to offend anyone, so you want to do the best you can to avoid that.
And this is where the dangers of allegory get very tricky.
Allegories are never an exact replication of the real-world conflict or concepts; that’s entirely their point, they can’t be. And so any allegory is mired in its own specific context. The “looser” the allegory (as in, the less intentional or less directly paralleled), the more the specific context of the concepts will differ from the real-world ones.
For example, take the TV show True Blood. In it, vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are facing numerous prejudices as a result. The show’s opening credits even draw the direct parallels with a sign “God hates fangs.” And one clip at the end of the first season discusses a law allowing vampires and humans to marry in a single state. So the show is quite clearly and intentionally drawing parallels between the prejudice against vampires and homophobia, and in doing so, it gains a lot of emotional complexity and some deeper themes.
However, vampires kill people. They are violent, and immoral, and have prejudices of their own. This adds a great deal of complexity to the specific conflict in the show, so that when an anti-vampire activist speaks out against vampires being violent and then we see a scene of a vampire killing innocent people, we start to wonder if that activist is right. However, when taken as an allegory for gay people, you can see where this might become problematic—what exactly is the show saying?
And this is where the idea that allegories are perfect or absolute breaks down. I don’t think the writers of True Blood are saying that gay people are secretly evil or that homophobic activists are secretly right that they’re all pedophiles or trying to destroy straight marriages or whatever stupid bullshit they come up with. But if you were to believe that the allegorical parallels are being drawn throughout, you might come to that conclusion.
In my opinion, the specific conflict in the show is complicated by the violence of vampires in order to show how complex and multifaceted all real-world groups are, so that categorizing people by certain identities is ultimately ignorant. This is a great and interesting theme, and I’m glad the show explores it. It’s just in the context of the allegory, or of the parallel real-world conflict, that it might start to get a bit beyond what the creators intended to say.
Some allegories show up without intention, simply because most conflicts between people fall into certain universal patterns. If the writers of True Blood really did just want to write about prejudice against vampires, without intending or trying to make it resonant with any real world prejudice, they would probably fail—because any time you’re discussing prejudice (even made-up fantasy prejudice), you’re going to be hitting on themes and elements of real world prejudice.
The two primary issues with allegory are that it simplifies the real-world conflict (by necessity of time and translation) and it adds specific context of its own.
For example, take X-Men. Some have argued that Dr. X and Magneto are parallels of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. There is plenty of evidence that this is the case, given the dialogues about prejudice, passive resistance, etc. However, what is that saying about Malcolm X? That he was a terrorist and a villain? That is probably an offensive stance for the many people who support Malcolm X, and it greatly simplifies a complex man and a complex conflict into a fantasy about mutants.
Then there are the problems in execution of the allegory. For example, equating oppressed people with the word “mutants,” even if they are the sympathetic party and heroes of the story. Or telling a story that is an allegory for racism but having a cast that is entirely white. These are issues that arise from the choices that the creators make in how to tell their specific story, but when you add the element of allegory, they become problematic.
So can you avoid allegory altogether? Perhaps, if you make your conflict so context-specific and try to avoid any universal themes of the human experience.
But you can’t control what people will see in between the lines of your story. And the truth is that adding a bit of real-world resonance and themes is often a good thing; it deepens your story, makes it feel more relevant, and helps it connect to readers who relate to its conflicts. It can also help you say something meaningful about the world, and if you do it well, it can avoid the preachiness that writing directly about the real-world issue would cause.
The best thing you can do, in my admittedly-inexperienced opinion, is to be aware of these issues and try your best to address them if you can. If your allegorical parallels get problematic, try and distance them further from their direct influences—add more complexity and contradictory elements so that they are less and less an obvious reflection of the real-world concept. Remember that the real-world elements you’re writing about (directly or inadvertently) are incredibly complex and nuanced, more so than you could probably ever portray in a single story, so be sure that each of your invented conflicts are complicated by nuances beyond a simple black-and-white truth.
And remember that the real-world concepts affect actual people with feelings and lives, so if something really is too sensitive to address (or at least to deal with appropriately in the context of your world and story), then be cautious and respectful, ask yourself whether you really need to write about that, and try and get someone else’s opinion (who is affected by the issue) about your execution of it. On the last point, though, don’t turn anyone into a spokesperson for an entire group. Yes, this gets complicated—welcome to the world.
Ultimately, you may have to just accept that you are an imperfect human being in a very imperfect world, and you might offend someone. Respect their feelings and opinions, DON’T speak over them to tell them how they should feel (such as, “You’re overreacting”), and do your best to apologize and address the issue as appropriate.
For various reasons, you may not be able to change what offended them, and for even more complex reasons, you may not want to. This particular difficulty is something I’m still working through, since due to the variety of human existence and opinion, it’s simply impossible to change everything that offends anyone—but how do you tell the difference between what should be addressed and what should be, for lack of a better term, ignored? This isn’t about dismissing that person’s right to be offended or to have an opinion; it’s about not doing anything in response to it… and while that feels incredibly wrong, I can’t help but feel it’s necessary in some instances. But which instances? And how to do it without dismissing them? This is a really complicated issue that I definitely do not know how to deal with, so I’m not going to deliver an opinion right now. If anyone out there has a thought, let me know.
But even with all this complexity, you still have to write, and do your best. That’s all anyone can do.
Just be a little… cautious. 🙂