Morality – a writer’s best friend

moral-compass

Image source: brucemctague.com/rediscovering-the-moral-compass

 

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:

Theft

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.

Murder

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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37 thoughts on “Morality – a writer’s best friend

  1. This is very interesting to me. I write to explore character and try and explain life to myself without any other particular agenda apart from trying to portray my characters and their traits as accurately as possible. However, on occasion, I find people responding to the character rather than the writing or the story. A comment on my last post said, about an entirely fictitious character in my story as being, ” Completely amoral” with an earnestness of tone which took me aback. For all of us, I suppose, there are issues which cannot be redeemed by humour. I actually wrote a post musing on the how we revere babies, but would we throttle a baby if we knew it was to be the next Adolf. Interesting question

    • And the best thing about the feedback from the reader is that they were right, at least from their moral perspective. This is what makes playing in these areas so interesting 🙂

  2. Another excellent post. I love the issue of moral dilemma in writing. In Singled Out, one character is fundamentally immoral – thus, for them, there is no ‘dilemma’ surrounding what they do. But two other characters deal with moral dilemmas, where they are forced to face and learn from their past behaviours. The decisions these characters take are not clear cut, many would question the rights and wrongs. I hope this might make interesting debate amongst readers. As you rightly acknowledge, there are few strictly black-or-white areas in life, and many, many shades of grey. Writing is the richer for reflecting those shades of grey and not resorting to easily digestible, ‘happily ever after’ moralities.

  3. I am writing a motivational book/memoir and the morality issue is a serious concern. I am the protagonist and I’m far from perfect. Make heaps of mistakes and am very aware of my shortcomings. At the same time, I have overcome brain surgery and a severe auto-immune disease which attacks my muscles to learn photography, the violin and to ski. My p[lot, which is obviously real and not made up as I go along, took a severe nose dive when I caught pneumonia and then the auto-immune disease flared up and I was having chemo. That wasn’t the way the story was supposed to end and fortunately, it’s kept going. I mostly use humour to manage all of this and to9 be honest, I think people relate better to your bumbling hero than some irritating perfectionist. What do you think?

    • I think people relate to characters with flaws, that’s true. A mistake many new authors make is to have characters that are either truly bad or flawlessly good. This might help the narrative but it makes the characters much less interesting or engaging.

  4. This is great food for thought. It’s all too easy to make a character good or bad, right or wrong. It’s much trickier to create a likable protagonist with moral ambiguities or to create an antagonist with redeeming features. Exploring themes of morality is a clever way to go about it.

    Wonderful post that’s got me thinking. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Carrie, I’m glad you liked it. I think the best villains are the ones to which you can relate, even if you would never do the things they do. One of my favourite things when writing is to play around with scenarios, painting a characters to be a bad person only to reveal circumstances and motivations that raise questions as to whether they are truly bad after all.

  5. I found that definition of murder to be quite interesting, considering my country’s justice system calls it “murder” even when it is not premeditated (first degree murder is premeditated, and second degree is not). When a father kills someone in a rage because that person abused his daughter, is that justified? All sorts of questions can come up on this. I find the parental instinct comes up a lot in these dilemmas, as you’ve mentioned in some of your examples. Characters are certainly more intriguing to me when their actions are not black and white.

    • Thanks, Sue. The definition is an English one, from the Collins Dictionary. What you call second degree murder, we call manslaughter. For me, the books I enjoy most are those where I make up my mind about a character only to have it changed as the story moves on, possibly more than once. It takes you out of your comfort zone and is a great method of keeping a reader engaged.

  6. Very thought provoking question, ‘would you kill Adolph Hitler, the child, if sent back in time?’ No, I don’t think I could, but I might kidnap him and bring him into the future. Then again if his destiny doesn’t change, he might start off WWIII and that might be the end of us all. Oh well, probably a good job time travel doesn’t exist…. or does it? :0
    I’m reblogging this, if you don’t mind.

    • I’m with you on the Hitler question, I can see the logic behind it, 1 life versus tens of millions that dies in World War II, but I don’t believe I could be the one to do it. Thanks for your comment and for reblogging this. 🙂

  7. The most dynamic energy source in literature is that between good and evil. Whether it’s drama or comedy, the story is almost always motivated by the difference between these ends of the human behavioral spectrum. These diametrically opposed forces create the tension by which all the action happens. For example; only a taut violin string can produce sound. Whether that sound is a soothing lullaby or dissonant, warped, twisted sound is up to how the string under tension is played. Mankind has spent centuries debating, and thousands of authors have wrestled with the question. “What is truly good and what is truly evil?”
    For me the theory that works best in writing (note: not necessarily, life) is that good and evil are the range between selfish and selfless. The definition of a literary bad person is that at the most basic level: “It’s all about them.” They steal, they kill and they betray to further their own position, wealth or power.
    To me, the beauty of choosing selfishness as a flawed character trait is that we all understand it, because selfishness resides in all of us. We may not have killed somebody but we’ve all been selfish. It then becomes a matter of degree-or how it’s played. If your selfishness became large enough, would you kill another person to get what they have? To most this is an absurd question but the jails and the death rows are filled with people who answered that question in a manner differently than you. (Unless you are reading this from death row.)
    On the other side of the taut literary string is; selflessness. Comprised of character actions that they do not benefit from, but actions that other humans or the environment, the culture, even society – benefit from. That, to me, makes a hero or a character with positive traits that a reader might have the desire to emulate.
    So the way I keep sane in while writing is by the following guardrails: If the intention and resulting action is selfless-good person, if it’s selfish-bad person.

    This comment was excerpted from the blog “Polarity: It’s A Good Thing”
    https://tomavitabile.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/polarity-its-a-good-thing/

    • Thank you for your well-thought out and well-written reply, but I’m not sure it captures the full spectrum of scenarios. A person could do good for selfish reasons, or bad through a selfless act. Does the act make the person good or the intention?
      The reality is that people are complex, doing both selfless and selfish acts depending on the situation and their emotional state. It’s this conflict, this moral maze, that is most interesting for me.

  8. Ah great post. I’m absolutely with you on this. Practically all my books are about the grey between the black and white absolutes of right and wrong. The fact is, life is never simple which is the joy and the frustration of living.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • That’s a lovely phrase, “life is never simple which is the joy and the frustration of living.” The grey areas are where the fun’s to be had, with in a good and bad way, but especially in a writerly way!

      • Too right. If it was all black and white it would be a Hollywood blockbuster, which would get repetitive after a while. Glad you liked my turn of phrase there. 🙂

        Cheers

        MTM

  9. Great post as always!!!!! I love books with moral issues, keeps you thinking long after you have finished reading. My first book, “From Cornflakes to Eternity” explores the afterlife. Through the adventures of three children, we discover that is not what religion you follow through your life, but your daily actions and thoughts, both good and bad that determine where you will spend eternity. And perhaps it is better not to know where you will spend eternity, because then your actions while you are alive are genuine and sincere. I really enjoy thinking about these types of issues, but sometimes it makes my brain hurt!

    • It’s an interesting point you make because it raises the issue of who defines our morality. Depending on your views, morality can be defined through your religious, societal or individual beliefs, or as with most people, a combination of any of those. This, too, can lead to questions about the moral course depending on the viewpoint of the people involved, something we see all the time in real life and which can also be a great source of drama for our writing.

  10. What a timely post. The story I’m working on at the moment explores all sorts of moral ambiguities, murder, deception, ambition, revenge, and will hopefully have the reader torn in two wondering whether they should root for any of the characters. I love the idea of working with flawed characters and searching for anything within them that is the root cause of what they do. And the possibility of forcing the reader to empathise with an antagonist or even wondering who the antagonist is opens up all sorts of tasty challenges.

    Chris

    • Thank you. I’m with you on this. Creating a story with a set of characters the reader is unsure who to root for is both good fun but also very challenging. If you do it well you’ll have the reader hooked throughout, but there is also the chance that the reader will find all the characters unappealing and switch off. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about writing this way is having feedback from one reader telling me how much they loved a particular character only for another to say how they disliked them and preferred a different one. The words are the same but what the reader brings with them, including their own sense of morality, will be very different.

      • During the rewrites I’ve had several arguments with myself about scenes I was sure would kill a reader’s empathy with a character. I’m not concerned about a character being disliked, so long as the conclusion is arrived at after the book has ended; if it happened at the end of chapter one that would be a major calamity! But the fun is in the slow unravelling of a character’s story, so that just as the reader might be on the verge of condemnation another element is revealed to raises another set of questions.

        It’s good to keep readers on their toes.

        Chris

      • It’s so much fun, drip feeding information in such a way as to sway the reader’s opinion on a character’s actions. I’m writing a trilogy, so I have the opportunity to cast a character as a villain in one book only to then challenge that viewpoint in the next.

  11. Great post. I use moral dilemmas quite a bit. One of my favorites is how the failure to take action against a wrong can be interpreted as condoning the wrong behavior. The characters must decide whether to take a stand and put themselves on the line or allow the evil to exist. It’s a choice we face every day in our world simply because there aren’t enough hours to fully engage on every issue.

  12. I thought that point about the price paid to save people was one of the most interesting things about Second Chance. As the darkness underlying the setting is slowly revealed, it makes the lines of right and wrong satisfyingly murky, something I usually enjoy in a story.

    I’ve played a lot with conflicting moral values in the series I’m currently working on. Is it OK to take a relic from a graveyard to advance the sum of human knowledge? Depends on your views on graveyards, the dead and religion. Is it still a betrayal if someone turns against their friends to uphold their original higher cause? These sorts of questions give characters depth and ensure conflict, both of which help create a good story.

  13. The next installment of my series involves a character holding a university classroom at gunpoint and the beta readers are completely convinced that he’s justified in doing so. I suppose I was playing with morality in doing this. For me it was more a “what if” question but I think many of those do play with morality. It’s an interesting way to look at it.

    • I think if you manage to persuade readers that holding a class at gunpoint is justified then you are doing a good job at playing around with conventional morality. 🙂

      • Speculative fiction really opens up the possibilities for issues of morality. I’m sure it can be done in any genre but it’s a fascinating lens to put on things.

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