For Better or Worse: Writing About Influence in Fiction

Some of my favorite stories are stories about influence: the way people can change one another. Lord Henry Wotton—a decadent aesthete—corrupting the innocent titular character of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The sophisticated and thoroughly European Madame Merle taking naive American Isabel Archer under her wing in Henry James’ 1881 Portrait of a Lady. In each case, the story of a relationship between two people—one charismatic, one vulnerable—makes it possible to simultaneously explore personal dynamics and wider questions of morality and ideology, how “dangerous” human beings and “dangerous” ideas alike can transform us , or destroy us.

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