Until we’ve mastered the Vulcan Mind Meld, human communication will have a gap between intent and understanding. We convey meaning and understand messages based on our personal filter of experiences, language, and cultural context, which can be wildly different from the personal reference points of whoever we’re interacting with. (It is also a leading cause of jokes that sounded better in one’s head).
Like any other form of communication, a story is built both out of authorial intent and audience understanding. Unlike other forms of communication, there is a distance between the two parties– we’re left simply with what’s on the page. So we are left to wonder first, what is the author’s intent, and second, does this matter once the story is let into the world?
In some situations, author intent is important, if only because it separates satire from honest-to-goodness extremism. In others, understanding the context of the work is useful as a route to deeper understanding of the story as a whole, especially if the nuances of the story rely on references or language specific to the authors’ time and place.
That said, a story stands on its own, and the in-universe messages, as played out by the action and characters, exist whether the author explicitly intended them or not. As a writer, it’s important to understand that our work is only what’s on the page (see the song at the top of the post– there’s no evidence that Brad Paisley was anything but well-intentioned and sincere about this song, but that doesn’t make it any less cringe-inducing).
It’s important to step back from our work and evaluate the message we’re creating with the action– which characters and choices are framed as good, bad, or ambiguous? Do the ‘facts’ of your fictional universe support what you are trying to convey? I have the advantage of being able to run plot outlines or scenes by Esteemed Coauthor for immediate feedback as we work and vice versa, and we tend to analyse our own work intensely (we both come from academic science, so we’re used to critiquing papers to make sure the evidence supports to conclusion). Even if you work alone, you can set outlines aside to ‘cool’ and examine them more objectively later, or enlist a friend to give you feedback on the message of the story. Because it’s all too easy to write with the best of intentions and become tomorrow’s “Accidental Racist”.