Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.20: Allegory in Fiction

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

What is an allegory, anyway? This episode probably won’t settle that question, but we did manage a discussion on how to use our stories to teach things, or be stand-ins for things, and to do it in the ways that allegories and/or parables might.

We talk about some famous allegories, some things whose authors insisted were not allegorical, and the possible pitfalls of didacticism.

Credits: This episode was engineered by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a famous fable and retell it as an allegory.

Thing of the week: Head On, by John Scalzi, narrated by Amber Benson, OR narrated by Wil Wheaton.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What is an allegory? Animal Farm, Aesop’s Fables, 1984. Stories that convey a message through fiction? Especially where the reader might not accept the message directly, but will accept the allegorical version. Parables, fables. Stories that are trying to teach something. Allegories have inserted intentional symbols. How do you teach something in a story? Specific symbols representing something inserted intentionally, that align thematically. Allegory and satire both give us messages that we wouldn’t normally accept. Ask yourself, “Am I writing an allegory because I have a mission, or because I feel like my writing should have a deeper purpose than just being a good story?” Be careful, some readers don’t want to know, they don’t want to be taught. So your allegory may need to be subtle. Shorter allegories may be more obvious. If you hit someone over the head with something for 300 pages, they might get a headache. Make sure there is more going on than just the allegory. It should work at multiple levels, as story, as well as metaphorical representation. Avoid accidental allegories.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 20.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Allegory in Fiction.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I’m standing in for every bald guy ever.


[Brandon] So this is going to be a fun episode because we realized as we were doing preparations that we have no idea how to define an allegory.


[Mary Robinette] We’re writers. We just… Definitions are hard.

[Brandon] What do you guys think? What is an allegory?

[Mary Robinette] So when I think of allegories… I mean, there’s the classic things like Animal Farm, but I’ll have to be honest that the first thing that jumps into my mind is Aesop’s Fables, which are a little bit more on-the-nose than something like Animal Farm, 1984. But for me, they’re stories in which we have a message and we would like to convey it to you through fiction.

[Brandon] Yes. I think that underlying idea is going to be the core here.

[Howard] I think one of the best examples of that comes to us from the story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan comes to David and tells the allegory of the ewe lamb. There was this man who had a precious lamb and another man came and took it and claimed it and slaughtered it. What should we do? David says, “Well, the guy who slaughtered the lamb should clearly be killed.” Nathan said, “Hah! You’re the guy who killed the lamb.”


[Howard] “Because you took… Was it Uriah?… You took his wife and you sent him off to battle to die. This is on you.” That is classic allegory format. Where the reader won’t accept the true version of the story, but they will accept the version of the allegory, and then you’ve got them.

[Margaret] It’s interesting, because I don’t know if it’s part of the dictionary definition of allegory, but just the word connotes in my head the religious allegory is very strong there. Specifically, frankly, the Christian allegory. They may not have invented the form, but I do feel like it has been embraced.

[Mary Robinette] It’s funny, because I’m like, I’m sure that there’s some literature professor listening to us right now going, “No, that’s a parable, you fool.”


[Mary Robinette] “But that’s not an allegory, that’s a…”

[Brandon] We’re just going to use lowercase allegory. Stories that are trying to teach something. For me, the line between a story that just kind of develops its own theme and an allegory would be inserted intentional symbols. At least for me. You’re writing and say, “This is a symbol for something. I’m going to now tell a story using that symbol.” In my mind as author. But of course, I’ve often brought up the story where Tolkien insisted that Lord of the Rings was not an allegory for anything, particularly not World War I.


[Margaret] Certainly not.

[Brandon] At some point, I think there’s a great argument between reader interpretation and author intent in all this stuff you can have. But we’ll shove that to the side for now. We’re just going to talk about, let’s say you want to do this. You want to use your story to teach something or to be a symbol for something. How do you do it?

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that you mentioned is specific symbols inserted intentionally. That’s one of the things that you would be doing, is making decisions. So examples that people give of Lord of the Flies that the conch represents power. So once you know that, then you have to think about every time that is being used, is it supporting the notion of power? When you’re picking your symbols, you want them to in some way align thematically with whatever thing it is that you are trying to lay the groundwork for. So that’s one aspect.

[Howard] I can’t think of allegory without also thinking of satire. Allegory is a way to make us think about a thing differently so that ordinarily the writer is able to give us a message that we wouldn’t otherwise accept, or wouldn’t as readily accept. Satire is doing exactly the same thing.

[Brandon] I would say they are… They fall under the same definition. Which definition that is, I don’t know, whether satire is an allegory or allegory’s…

[Howard] This allegory is satirical. This satire is allegorical. I… There are lots of examples of both. The reason I bring it up is that the first question I would ask and answer for myself is, “Do I want this story to be allegorical, because I have a mission to change hearts and minds, or do I want this story to be allegorical because I feel like my writing should have a deeper purpose than me just telling a good story?”

[Brandon] Okay. That’s a great place to start.

[Howard] That question right there, I feel like too many new writers will trip over this need to communicate something deeper and try and do it deliberately, when, as you already established with Tolkien, um, boy, even if you… A lot of these things are going to come out unconsciously, and you’re going to say things that are true that you didn’t know you were saying.

[Mary Robinette] So I’m going to say that I think that Tolkien actually has a real point, that it’s not an allegory. Because he’s not trying to convey a message. That is one of the definitions of an allegory, is that it is trying to convey a message or a moral.

[Brandon] Well, if you will read what Tolkien says about it, he’s like, “I don’t want anything specific to be a symbol. I do want to communicate themes and ideas, but I don’t like symbolism as one-to-one correlations.” So for him, that was a big part of it.

[Howard] So it’s fairer to say that it’s not an allegory of World War I, but it is allegorically related to the destruction of warfare, abuses of power and industry, or whatever.

[Mary Robinette] Whereas Animal Farm is very clearly an allegory about US-Russian relations and the accumulation of power. There was a specific… There are specific messages being conveyed in that.

[Margaret] This horse is this person and this pig is…

[Brandon] So let me ask the question then, there have been some… In sci-fi fantasy, this is very commonly done. Both terms. The I just want to tell a theme, but also the this is specifically meant to teach you something and represent something. You can find multiple examples of this throughout recent science fiction and fantasy, whether you’re picking the Golden Compass or whether you’re picking the Sword of Truth. These are major fantasy series that have been written with the intent to teach, and it’s interesting to read reactions to these. Readers, in my experience, don’t want to know about the behind the scenes. They don’t want to know about this. Why is that? Why do they immediately kind of turn against that idea? Is that a good thing, is that a bad thing, is that just how it is?

[Howard] I think it’s illustrative of the purpose of allegory. If telling you what the allegory is turned you off to the story, then the message is one that you likely wouldn’t have received. So the allegory is important. And it is doubly important that you are as opaque as possible in the way this is related, so that they can get the story and they can enjoy it and they can internalize it, and at some point, years in the future, they realize, “Oh. That story really was exactly like political situation XYZ, and now I have conflicting opinions about both of those. Now I have to reconcile those as a human being.”

[Brandon] I certainly think that’s a valid interpretation, although I’m going to point out, like, I believe it won a Hugo, Ponies, a Hugo short story, which was very blatant about its metaphor and was very, in some ways, divisive because of that. But that divisiveness was what made the story work, and is why it was so widely regarded. I actually love the story. So in that case, the allegory… Maybe it’s because it was a short story. So it didn’t overstay its welcome. But the allegory punched me in the face, made me sit down and think. I’m glad that it punched me in the face.

[Margaret] I do wonder if there is a tie to length and obviousness of your allegory. It’s easier to get away with setting… your David and Bathsheba example from the beginning, this is a very short story, it doesn’t have to be that subtle and it probably can’t be. If you were telling an extended allegory over an entire novel or a series of novels, does that lend itself to veering more into this is an extended metaphor that’s exploring themes. Because, I mean, I know as a reader, if you’re going to hit me over the head with something, you better do it fast. If you’re going to keep doing it for 300 pages, I might get a headache.

[Mary Robinette] I also think that it… There has to be something else going on there. Like Animal Farm, you can read that without having any idea of the allegory, and the story holds. I think that if there’s something… Because… Part of it is we like the personality of the animals. But I think that if you’re going to do an allegory and there’s nothing else going on, that, yeah, then it has to be supershort.

[Brandon] Yeah, I would agree.

[Mary Robinette] That’s the reason that a lot of the things that are allegories are, in novel length, are masked under layers and layers and layers of stuff. But it is, again, I think the thing is that in an allegory where the writer is setting out to do it deliberately, they have a point that they’re trying to make. Elizabeth Bear says that the difference between a story and a polemic is that in a story, you raise questions, and in a polemic, you answer them. I think that one of the things that happens with an allegory, this is why people get angry about it when they notice it, is that they don’t like being told what to think, which is what is often happening in an allegory, especially if it’s the only thing that’s going on.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and pause here for the book of the week. Mary, you have the book of the week.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s Head On by John Scalzi.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] So, Head On is, on its surface, a fun romp. It is just dealing with… There’s a murder and the main character’s an FBI agent and they’re trying to solve the murder. Then it’s also dealing with the whole gaming sports franchise political intrigue thing. But it’s also, underneath that, an allegory for disability. The main character has something called Haden or Haden’s disease and is locked in because of that. Everybody who has Haden’s disease has Threeps, which are these robots that go around. So it’s dealing with this fun romp, but at the same time, it is having a very serious conversation about disability rights in the United States that is very contemporary and very much an allegory for a lot of stuff that’s going on.

[Brandon] Yeah. That’s actually… Let’s jump into that idea. Because the further you go on this, it’s like the allegory is becoming something else, maybe a different term. Maybe it’s just allegory where it’s not a specific symbol allegory, it’s more of a concept. But, let’s say you want to write a story. You ask yourself Howard’s question earlier. What do I want to do, do I want to tell a great story, do I want to go deep into a topic? What if the answer is, “Yes, I want to do both.” How can you take something and teach or get across an idea you want to get across to make the world a better place, but you don’t want your story to be consumed by it to the point that it becomes a fable?

[Margaret] I think Mary really was hitting on it earlier, is that it has to work at multiple levels. Whether or not someone is getting the allegory or the connections you’re trying to make, if it still works as a story, then you’ve still got something there. We were discussing earlier about reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read it when I was a kid. I was a nice Jewish girl. The Christian metaphor flew right over my head. I had no idea. But it’s like, “This is a cool story,” and there was the magic and the lion, it was a really touching moment when he dies. I’m like, “Oh, wow.” And… But just like…

[Mary Robinette] You didn’t see the rising again coming at all.


[Margaret] No. It was a total surprise.


[Margaret] So it’s sort of like when you throw in what we call a joke that’s a 2 percenter, that only 2% of your audience is going to get. You can get away with that if the 98% of your audience that doesn’t get it can just read right over it and they don’t feel like they’re missing anything. I think this is similar.

[Mary Robinette] We did that all the time going into elementary schools with children’s theater. Because we had to write for multiple age groups. The rule was that it was okay if everybody didn’t get it, but no one could feel like they were being excluded because they didn’t get something.

[Howard] The Elder Scrolls online, there was a content plug-in dropped in 2018 called Summerset which opens with a story about immigration. The Summerset Isle has been locked off to everybody except High Elves. Now the Queen has said other people can come in. People are angry about it and bad things are happening to immigrants. If that doesn’t sound immediately political, I don’t know where you’ve been. But the way they handled it was whoever your character is, you are missed treated the moment you arrive. Everyone talks down to you. You, as a player, if you’re invested in the game, you’re invested in your character, you want to be liked, you want to accomplish things, you want to be able to have quests and adventures. Everyone is talking down to you and you feel wronged. I think that if you want to have an allegory, if you want to tell a story that invites people to take the other side of an issue that they are already taking, you need to invest them in a point of view that is likable and that is… That they want to invest in that has… That’s being oppressed in that way, or that’s being chased down in that way.

[Mary Robinette] I think… Actually, this is another thing that I feel like it’s really important to bring up. Even if you don’t want to write an allegory, it’s really important as a science fiction or fantasy writer to understand how allegories work, so that you do not have accidental allegories that are really deeply problematic.

[Brandon] That’s, I’ll just say, you’re probably going to have them at some point. Because of your own unconscious biases. We have an entire podcast on that last year. Learning… The more you learn, the more you learn to accept and then deal with, the better your writing will get.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Absolutely. But you want to think about, when you’re inventing a fictional thing, like, does this… Will this work as a stand-in for something in the real world? How does it map to the real world? Are you bringing in some of these things, and make sure that you’re thinking about the thematic elements as if you were going to construct an allegory. If you don’t intend to do that, pull that thread out and re-map it.

[Brandon] I would agree that that is excellent advice.

[Brandon] I’m going to give us our homework. Which is, we’ve talked about this kind of blurry line between allegory and fable, and we’re not even sure if there is one.


[Brandon] But what I want you to do is, I want you to take a famous like, Aesop’s fable or something like this and I want you to try and tell it as an allegory. Meaning it you’re backing off on the didactic drill in on the lesson and coming forward on the characterization and the themes of these characters, so that it steps one step towards story and one step away from simple metaphor. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.