If you set aside the poetry and the romanticism, if you consider writing it as it is, then you can only conclude that writing is manipulation.
Writing conforms, in one way or another, to rules and formulae which will better enable a writer to manipulate a reader.
Humans are addicted to anxiety. But we don’t like the consequences wrought from anxiety in our day-to-day lives—what we’ll call long term consequences. So we seek out what we can call controlled anxiety, which results in short term consequences. These are anxiety-inducing situations, but they’re situations we anticipate will have few, if any, long term consequences. This is why people are attracted to suspense, to horror novels or films, or even amusement park rides: they can experience anxiety without, they assume, long term consequences.
Manipulating a reader’s anxiety is the writer’s sole task. If you can successfully manipulate a reader’s anxiety, then you can induce whichever emotion you want to induce. For example, if you want to manipulate people into feeling warmth or empathy for a character, then you have to create a character who’s vulnerable in some sense and then exploit his or her vulnerability.
This is why the concept of conflict is so critical to writers. Read any book, talk to any expert and you’ll discover that conflict is crucial. It’s indispensable because it’s the easiest way to manipulate a reader. It is proven and effective, and so it has become a pillar on which most, if not all, fiction is founded.
Writers write to manipulate readers into caring for characters so they can impart specific mental models—these models might be philosophical in nature, or they might not extend any farther than creating a more believable experience, or what writers refer to as “world building.”
Fiction is a closed system, so it’s acceptable to present circular reasoning as a foundation on which fiction is built. But if you look at it logically, you might find what you’d perceive as a paradox, but it is, in a sense, part of the machinery of fiction: we create believable characters by creating a believable world; we create a believable world by creating believable characters; and the conjunction of believable worlds and believable characters allows for the presentation of believable situations—even if, in hindsight, those situations seem absurd.
In a sense, a writer manipulates a reader in real time—as far as the reader is concerned. As long as a writer has created believable characters and situations, then actions themselves might seem more credible at the moment the reader reads it.
Writers who don’t succeed in creating either experience might make the absurdity of the actions more obvious than skilled writers.
But you must have an audience in order to manipulate an audience; and in the age of marketing, you build an audience by manipulating people—either through reputation, infamy, and so on.
This is why social media is perceived as effective, even if numbers might not justify the claim. In the online world, we can pretend to be whatever we want people to perceive—therefore creating or reinforcing a perception—by restricting their access to us as complete individuals. In the online world, we can show people only what we want to show them in terms of creating or reinforcing a perception about ourselves.
That is the foundation on which marketing is built: you create, and then reinforce, a perception of “reality.” Branding, on the other hand, serves as a sort of shorthand for the creation, or reinforcement, of an intended perception of “reality.”
Through marketing you establish a mental model, and through branding you exploit the connection between a human being and a mental model.
In other words, branding is meant to exploit a person while marketing manipulates them. The goal is to make a person active—as a consumer, a voter, and so on. Political advisors refer to this as “activating the base.” In this sense, “activating” is not an accidental word—it is derived from the notion of manipulating a person into participating in some form of activity.
Writers are no different. Through marketing and branding, through reputation or infamy, a writer can activate a person into buying a specific book, into the act of reading; and by successfully manipulating that person, by creating anxiety and inducing emotions with short term consequences, a writer might succeed in laying the groundwork for selling a second novel—or non-fiction book, or movie, television show, and so on.
Are the intentions to entertain? Are the intentions to make money? We can bracket these questions because intentions outside of manipulation aren’t important to our conversation.
Some writers might want nothing more than to entertain people, some writers might want nothing more than to educate people, some writers might want nothing more than to alter a person’s worldview, or some writers might want nothing more than to make money—the techniques are the same despite the intentions.
Writing, marketing, and branding are metaphors we use to describe various kinds of manipulation. We might sugarcoat what writers do, we might romanticize it or describe it in poetic terms, but manipulation is the foundation of all creative acts. Writing is no exception.
If you’re a writer and you’re uncomfortable with the idea of manipulating people, then you should step back and reconsider your ambitions. And if you’re willing to embrace the notion of manipulation, then you might write stronger books, market yourself better, and create a more effective brand.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: a novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]