One of the things I enjoy most about writing is exploring morality. At its most basic level, morality is just a question of right and wrong. It’s a black and white issue. Take theft, for example. The definition of theft is:
The dishonest taking of property belonging to another person with the intention of depriving the owner permanently of its possession
Not many of us would disagree that theft is wrong, but is it always wrong?
To punish a thief?
A young woman is caught stealing from a store. Theft is wrong and she should be punished. But what if it was food she was stealing for her hungry children? Is it still wrong? What if she had recently lost her job and had no way of feeding her children? What if the job she’d lost was at the store and the sore owner owed her a month’s wages? What if the the reason she’d lost it was because she’d turned down the unwanted advances of the store owner?
With each new piece of information, the case for punishing the woman decreases. As a writer, this is a simple but effective means of drawing a reader deeper into a story, turning what appears to be a unsympathetic character on the surface into one the majority of readers could identify with. But even in such cases there will still be those who say the woman should be punished for theft and others who believe she should be let off.
But surely in every situation there’s a right and wrong?
It is very easy to create a situation where one person is in the right, another in the wrong, but this doesn’t necessarily make great dramatic tension. Take murder, for example. For most people, the definition of murder is the premeditated killing of one person by another. To murder someone, you plan to kill them, then act upon your plan. It’s black and white. However, the actual definition of murder is slightly different.
the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another
The key word in the definition is ‘unlawful,’ killing somebody outside of what is allowed by law. What is legal and what is moral are two very different things. You only have to look at the controversy surrounding the recent film, American Sniper, to understand that what to one group of people is a completely understandable act can be seen by others as unjustified murder.
Morality is subjective, and it is this subjectivity that makes it such a useful tool for writers.
Would you kill a child?
Most of us would see the killing of a child as abhorrent, the worst type of murder. There couldn’t possibly be any justification within the law for doing such a terrible thing.
But what if you’d been sent back in time and had the chance to kill the young Adolf Hitler? Would you do it? Could you kill what was at the time an innocent child to save millions?
Clearly, this an extreme hypothetical situation unlikely to happen in real life, but it shows that morality is never a simple black and white issue. There are people who would say the killing of the young Adolf Hitler would be justified, others horrified that anyone would think of doing such a thing. From a human perspective this type of dilemma is the stuff of nightmares, but from a writer’s perspective it’s gold dust.
How I use morality to fuel my writing
Second Chance is set in the near future where humanity has pulled back from the brink of environmental disaster. Those terrible events are now in the past and the people live in what many of us would view as a Utopia, with plentiful clean energy, a stable climate and relatively little crime. However, as the story advances it starts to become clear that there is a hidden price to pay for such stability, a price some would find too high and others happy to pay.
One of the moral areas I wanted to investigate was around ‘the common good.’ It’s a great phrase, meant to represent doing what’s best for everyone. In this case, saving the world from disaster is a good thing, but what about the price? The problem with the common good is that it’s often used to justify terrible actions. Those in power tend to decide what is the common good but power distances individuals from reality. Power corrupts, yet these are the people who define how much bad can be allowed in the name of the common good. And if the benefit is saving the world, who could argue with a bit of bad?
When creating characters or plotting stories, playing with these types of moral quandaries can give real depth to your work. While some authors use these situations to promote their own ideas and thoughts, I much prefer to keep myself out of the story. To me, the best books are those where all characters are portrayed realistically, protagonists and antagonists alike. It doesn’t mean you have to root for the antagonist, but you should be able to clearly see where they are coming from. What’s even better is when the countries blur until it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong.
What about you? How have you used morality in your writing? Or what the best moral quandaries from your favourite stories? I’d love to hear from you.
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