The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.

 

Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!


Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?

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15 thoughts on “The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

  1. Wonderful article. I did a few philosophical novels (novellas actually) with Nanowrimo and ran into the same issues and tips. The one that really got me was dialog. The problem for me s I’m trying to present philosophical ideas, so my first inclination is to exposit. After all, my books were less novels and more concrete examples of philosophy examples. I’ve went so far as to invent a character specifically to allow for an inner dialog. At times, it worked out ok, but at other times it was obviously an expository device. You hit the nail on the head.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I know exactly what you mean. It’s really hard to avoid talking heads when you have ideas you want to share. Sometimes that’s actually a good way to hash out the idea and make sure it makes sense. Maybe it’s a building block, to write it as a dialectic first. There’s something to be said for using a character to play devil’s advocate, with you or with your fictional counterpart. You can even build character through their positions. “What does Nietzsche say to Plato?” could evolve into questions like, “What does a Nietzsche fan look like when he’s been defeated in argument? What are his mannerisms? How old is he? What is his education level, his economic status? What does he fear the most? What does he think he wants and what does he really need? How can I show some of this when he orders at dinner? Etc.” What’s great about starting with a certain philosophical position is that the possibilities for his characterization close in, making your job a bit easier. You probably already know a great deal about this person just by knowing his position, or at least what this person would not be or do. And you can even make that philosophical stance contrast sharply with his external self. For instance, what if our Nietzsche fan turns out to be a picky vegan who hates vegetables and only eats things that are the color of Wonderbread?

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  2. Yes, definitely don’t lecture, but explain. And I think it is vital that the protagonist is asking questions, not giving the answers. And you can mix things up by having characters that think they know the answer, but are wrong, and letting the reader work out which answer is the right one.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I agree. In fact, when I submit chapters from the POV of a student who isn’t sure whether he gets the concepts or not, my readers tell me they appreciate being led on that intellectual journey WITH the character rather than simply trying to follow the point. In this POV I’m able to get away with a bit of exposition in dialogue from another character, because readers are eager to hear my character say he doesn’t get it…maybe they didn’t either, and now, whew, they’re not alone. Then he might privately consider it, tentatively, unsure of himself or what he really believes, even while conjuring up objections—maybe really good ones—that he never voices. Add humor here, mix things up, give the scene a proper place, and the ideas won’t seem so heavy.

      Also agree that characters should get it wrong. That’s the great fun in reading philosophical novels, when characters get it wrong. And even better when they get it wrong and this mistake has serious material consequences. I find this fairly hard to do, but I aspire to it, since it makes for a true philosophical novel. What would Crime and Punishment be as pure exposition? How unbearably preachy that would be. But senseless murder as a way of acting on a philosophy? Suddenly the idea itself becomes the centerpiece.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent post Tina!

    I think the challenges of writing philosophy in fiction are, in many ways, similar to the challenges of writing science in science fiction. How we handle it depends on what we want the reader to come away with. If we’re satisfied with them coming away with the general idea, then it seems like the best strategy is introduce them while never mentioning their official name or who they originated from.

    An excellent example of this is Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’. How many people came away from that movie knowing the phrase “the prisoner’s dilemma”? None. Yet a large part of the story was exploring exactly that, with the Joker literally setting up a situation with prisoners on two barges with a dilemma of whether to blow up the other barge before the prisoners on that barge blew them up.

    Star Trek often explored philosophical issues, but almost never named them explicitly. In the Next Generation episode ‘The Measure of a Man’, Data is forced to go on trial to prove his sentience. The problem of other minds never explicitly gets mentioned, but that is basically what gets explored.

    If we do cover philosophical concepts in dialog, I think it helps if we can figure out a way to have it not sound like a lecture. For example, in the quote you gave, I might have had the character sound a little less like a professor. Instead of
    ““Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…”
    I might have done something like
    “Ain’t nothing you want in this life you didn’t learn to want as a kid, and to get by in this world you gotta be what someone else once learnt to want, not yourself…”
    The regional dialect could be different, but the idea is not to sound professorial.

    If we do want readers to come away knowing the proper names of concepts or, even harder, the philosophers who authored them, then the difficulty level seems much higher. I’m actually not sure if it’s possible to do it in a story you want to get wide appeal.

    I especially like your advice to be funny. Here’s the thing I think most people don’t realize. It’s okay to try to be funny and fail to some extent. (Well, as long as the fail isn’t offensive.) The very effort sends a message to the reader that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that the reader can relax that this isn’t going to be a relentlessly SeriousTM work that you must be a serious person in a serious frame of mind to seriously understand and enjoy.

    I mean, consider how many philosophical ideas get explored in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books. It’s the contrast between the funny and the profound that probably make those books as successful as they are. I’ve heard similar things about Terry Pratchett’s books.

    I do agree with Steve that a big part of this is giving the readers space to work out the answers themselves.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reflections!
      I think you’re right about Sci-Fi, since there are so many technical ideas involved, as well as philosophy in many cases. Funny, I don’t watch Star Trek, but I’ve seen parts of that episode, if not the whole thing. I sense that’s a popular one? Or highly referenced one?

      So far as I can tell, a lot of Sci-Fi readers are likely to have a great deal of knowledge about the concepts already. I also get the sense that Sci-Fi readers really want to see these concepts and philosophies and science fleshed out, otherwise they’d simply turn to non-fiction to get information. In other words, they want the details, possibilities. Readers can actively engage with the concept they’re familiar with and check whether or not those details in the novel make sense. Plus, it’s a way of stretching the imagination, considering other possibilities, and ethical implications that don’t get considered elsewhere, etc. Maybe? You would certainly know better than I would.

      I’m in a weird position with mentioning philosophies explicitly. I have a professor as my protagonist, so it’s not that hard to include named philosophies without straying from the world I’ve created. The hard thing is to keep these relevant to the plot, if I choose to expand on these ideas.

      Good point about lecturing and voice. For me, it’s hard to use voice to make the lecture seem less like a lecture, since my protagonist is a philosophy professor. I tried to make him very different from the cliché windbag academic, but I’ll have to get my husband to help me with the final edit. Because I’m a windbag.

      I tend to use POV to help with this aspect. As I was telling Steve, if I’m including a big concept in dialog, I’ll tell that scene from the POV of someone who’s not lecturing, someone who’s not familiar with the ideas, that way readers have someone on their side.

      Really good point about humor. I think a big reason authors don’t use it is out of fear of failure, but you’re right, even failure creates a certain relaxed mood, a willingness to listen without feeling intimidated. And that’s important. Thanks for the tip! I’ll have to share this one with my group.

      I really need to read Terry Pratchett. I’ve heard nothing but praise.

      Liked by 2 people

      • On Star Trek, the episode probably is cited a lot, along with ‘Who Watches The Watchers’, but I’m not sure if they’re any of the most popular ones. I imagine the popular ones involving more Klingons, Romulans, and/or explosions.

        I think sci-fi readers span a wide range in how interested they are in the details of a particular topic. If an author goes into a deep dive on how a space drive works, there will be a hard core segment of their audience that will geek out on it, but the majority will probably glaze over, even if it is germane to the plot. The time honored tradition is to stow that kind of detail in appendices (or these days, web sites). That said, the sci-fi audience probably is more tolerant of infodumps, by necessity. My experience is that most sci-fi readers want to be lightly exposed to concepts, but only lightly exposed, except for perhaps a few areas where they crave more details, but exactly which area varies by the person.

        Ah, well, if your protagonist is a professor, then sounding professorial is a feature, not a bug. Maybe a good way to add humor is when he starts to pontificate, let him do just enough to whet the reader’s appetite, then have something humorous interrupt him before he is able to get into eye glazing territory.

        Of course, the above paragraph is advice if you intend the story to be the main attraction and the philosophy the seasoning. If philosophy is the main show, then I’m sure the approach changes. If people are going to pick up the book primarily to get the philosophy, then having your characters go on long soliloquies would, again, be a feature.

        I need to reach Pratchett myself. It’s been on my to-do list for a long time. I think what’s held me up is he tends to focus on fantasy, and I’ve been on more of a sci-fi bent in the last few years.

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  4. I really like what SelfAware said about exploring the idea without naming it. That said, I don’t necessarily assume that a broader readership is the goal. It depends on the author’s conception of his or her audience. With historical novels, some authors take elaborate measures to unobtrusively explain the period details so that they can have the widest possible readership. Others positively revel in the detail while demanding a high standard of the reader. One might think that this would ruin the chances for commercial success, but sometimes these authors gain a devoted following. I’m thinking of Patrick O’Brian’s novels of the British navy in the Napoleonic period, and anything by Dorothy Dunnett–who includes numerous foreign languages and does NOT translate them for the reader.

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    • This is such an interesting observation. I’ve heard there’s something to be said for really targeting your audience, and playing to that niche. This runs contrary to the standard advice to be broad. It’s a tough call for writers! I think we like to be everything all at once. I certainly do.

      I tend to think about my audience as the people I can count on to read something I write. Which would include my blogging friends and my writer’s group, and they aren’t as up to speed on philosophy as my blog readers are. So it’s a balancing act of so many factors. Do I consider my audience as it might be? Or do I consider my audience as it is now? I tend to think the latter, but that’s a complex matter already. I want the philosophy to be interesting for people who know it, and illuminating for those who don’t. So now I’m writing on different levels, hoping to satisfy both groups. Tricky indeed, but oh so worth it if I can pull it off. If.

      I think the same difficulty holds true for blogging. I don’t want to be too technical, too exclusive, yet I find the more technical I am, the more people are interested. You all are amazingly intelligent people, and nothing I can write would be over your heads. In fact, I’m realizing it would be far below, and I should be grateful to have such readers. But sometimes I wonder, who am I leaving out? Should I worry about that when I have such quality commenting going on here?

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  5. I can’t say how to write a good novel full of useful ideas. I can share how NOT to write one: Don’t surprise yourself with events. Plan what will happen to your main character from start to finish, and know exactly what experiences will help them learn their lesson before you begin. I had a Big Idea! I had Important Points to Make! I tried carrying my idea and message from one point to the next, and trudged uphill for 20,000 words. I gave up because I got bored – I knew what would happen next. It had to happen to make my point.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

      There’s a bit of tension between plotting everything out in advance and leaving enough room to feel excited by the writing, not knowing exactly what will happen next. I think it’s up to each writer to find that middle ground. I sense that this novel that I’m working on might have been a bit easier if I’d thought about the storyline and structure in advance a bit more, instead of having to essentially rework the whole thing and add chapter upon chapter to tie up loose ends. Still, it’s moving along. Next time I think I’ll do a basic plot outline to ensure I have a foundation, but give myself room to explore.

      At the writing workshop I recently went to, I got a lot of good advice about story structure. Specifically, how to use character arc to create plot, which I don’t usually hear about. (It seems people like to talk about them separately, but that doesn’t make much sense when you think about it.) I’m considering writing about what I learned in my next post, once I get some time away from working on my novel.

      Speaking of the Big Idea, in another writing workshop I heard the same language used to describe a basic story structure. First, there’s the Big Idea. Your story moves along, but then you hit the awful sagging middle. This is the hardest part for me, and I never knew what to do about it really. Charles Johnson says that’s when you need a Second Big Idea, an event or situation that leaves your protagonist naked to his worst fear, forced to make a choice.

      Are you thinking about returning to the novel at some point? Or starting a new one?

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