Author Topic: Moral maze  (Read 1246 times)

Jo Bannister

  • Guest
Moral maze
« on: December 13, 2017, 09:26:46 AM »
Whatever's happened to all the arguments we used to have?  It's been so peaceful around here recently, I've been reduced to starting another book.

In an effort to rattle some cages, I shall pose the question: Are we as novelists responsible for the ethics of our characters?  Do we owe it to someone - and if so, to whom? - that right should triumph and the evil-doer get his just deserts before we write "The End"?  Or is it enough that we entertain our readership?  Should we be trying to improve them as well?  Do we have a duty, do we even have a right, to set a moral tone? 

Whether we try to hold the moral high-ground or make determined assaults on it, is there a risk that the mean average morality of our readers will change over time and leave us looking silly?  It's happened before.  Those who wrote Improving Stories for Victorian children had no idea how the world would change even during the lifetime of those children.  Oscar Wilde said it would take a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell (in Dickens) without laughing, and they were both Victorians.

So should we leave aside the whole business of morality?  Or is that an abdication of responsibility?  If our characters are not responding to some code of ethics, internal or external, is anyone going to care what they do?

That's enough question-marks.  I've asked the questions: let's hear some answers...



Dansinger

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #1 on: December 13, 2017, 09:38:47 AM »
Nice one Jo.

My take one it: I'm not responsible for the ethics of my characters. Some might be saints, some might be dybbukim, and that's all right. Even if my MC turns out to be the evil one and my antagonist the saint. Or maybe they're all bad guys. (But never all saints, cause that would be boring.)

I remember watching Dexter, and Hannibal, and cheering both Dexter and Hannibal on - as I think most of us would have done. They are serial killers and Hannibal a cannibal to boot, and still we love them. Even though we know they really are the bad guys.

Personally, I tend to like my bad guys better than the good ones. Maybe because I am (most of the time) a gentle and law abiding person. In the end, I suppose we all have a Dr Jekyll hiding somewhere deep inside of us.

JewelAS53

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #2 on: December 13, 2017, 10:00:18 AM »
The bad guys are by far the most interesting and entertaining characters.

With respect to writing stories with a moral bent, I would turn to Richard North Patterson. He has managed to ask all the right questions and pose a plethora of positions that could be taken, all in one book. And the reader decides whether they come out as they went in - or not. Brilliant.

I have bad guys with a good streak, and a protagonist who needs the people around her to solve her issues - who's the more 'moral' character?

We tell the story as we see it, and unless we have a particular 'moral' we wish to drive home, we leave the ethics and the difficult stuff to the reader to sort out for themselves.

Offline bailish

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 3561
    • View Profile
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #3 on: December 13, 2017, 11:03:35 AM »
I've heard it said that the best antagonist is the one who differs from the protagonist in only one issue. One of them is on the moral side of the issue and the other is on the immoral side. We as writers introduce ethics by having one side defeat the other. I would assume a writer not taking an ethical position means leaving the ending in the air.

This reminds me of 'No Country For Old Men', the story of a truly despicable evil character and a good guy who becomes threatened when he gets involved. I was so disappointed when I saw the movie where the ending is left incomplete that I read the book to see which one won in the end, but the book did exactly the same ending as the movie.


Offline Simple Things

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 1826
    • View Profile
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #4 on: December 13, 2017, 11:38:21 AM »
I think morals and ethics can cage the depth of writing. Not all the time, but in key moments, decisions.

Am I responsible for how a reader morally sees my characters' actions?

How can I be? 

Jo Bannister

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #5 on: December 13, 2017, 12:04:41 PM »
These are all valid points, but I can't agree with a lot of them.

Of course immoral, wicked characters are more fun to write, and possibly to read about, than ordinary decent citizens slogging their guts out to give their children a slightly better start in life than they got.  But you wouldn't want to live in a world run by charming thugs, even if that wasn't a contradiction in terms.

I don't see it as my role to teach people how to think.  I do see it as my job to reflect the world as it is - and in the real world, thugs aren't charming.  Trust me: I've sat through enough court cases to state with absolute confidence that thugs are wholly and only that.  They aren't charming.  They don't have a better side.  They aren't kind to puppies.  They are people who put other people's rights and needs at nothing compared with their own desires.  They mug old ladies because it's safer than mugging someone who might mug back.

Do you really want to be an apologist for such people?  Do you want to write their propaganda? 

One of the hardest jobs in literature is to make goodness seem sexy.  Yet in real life, we recognise it and we value it.  "I don't care if he's a millionaire," we tell our teenage daughters, "just find yourself a good man."  And then, as writers, we go out and glamorise badness?

It's the glamorising that's dangerous.  Write about wickedness by all means, but don't pretend it's all right and don't pretend it doesn't wreck lives.  It isn't and it does.

Dansinger

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #6 on: December 14, 2017, 06:50:58 AM »
I'll bite. I'll play devil's advocate here.

You say we wouldn't want to live in a world run by charming thugs. I say this is exactly the world we are living in. You do know that the most successful CEO's, politicians and other high ranking professionals are more likely than not sociopaths, don't you? It's exactly their sociopathy - their charm, combined with the ruthlessness and lack of conscience - that makes them successful. Remember, these are charming people and we need them to make the world run smoothly. Sad perhaps, but true.

The thugs you've seen in the court cases, those are the criminals. Some sociopaths, no doubts, others just plains thugs with no underlying sociopathy at all. But all of them on the extreme end of evil.

I've known my share of charming thugs. Sociopaths. And they can be kind and caring - if they put their minds to it. If it furthers their cause. We call them charming, because that's what they are. Charming, and often more so than your ordinary good guy, who doesn't need to cultivate his charm to get what he wants.

Do I want to be an apologist for such people? Of course not. But I do find them intriguing. Why does their mind work the way it does? was it nature or nurture? Or a combination of these two? And that's what I like about the Dexters and Hannibals too. They are not just sociopathic killers. They are complex human beings, despite their inhumane acts. That's not glamorising badness. It's exploring the depths of the human psyche and it's what makes me - and I'l bet a lot more people - tick.

hillwalker3000

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #7 on: December 14, 2017, 10:56:15 AM »
But you wouldn't want to live in a world run by charming thugs, even if that wasn't a contradiction in terms.

So that rules out most politicians in Westminster.

H3K

Offline Shortcross

  • Sr. Member
  • ****
  • Posts: 435
  • Carpeing the hell out of this diem
    • View Profile
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #8 on: December 15, 2017, 02:42:10 AM »
The world is full of charming thugs. They don't have to be granny-beaters - you should meet my ex-business partner.

I'm not sure why you think writers are even capable of holding the moral high ground. Maybe if you're writing for kids perhaps, but I rarely feel morally enlightened after reading a 'normal' book of fiction. We can all name authors who are essentially philosophers and are capable of affecting the way we think, but deciding to become a writer doesn't automatically make a person one of them.

All you can do is paint a world as you see it. Some readers will agree, some disagree, some will learn things - others will think you're a moron.

hillwalker3000

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #9 on: December 15, 2017, 04:27:15 AM »
I remember reading somewhere that 'Art' (which, of course, includes writing) should calm the disturbed and disturb the complacent. I'm sure this goes as much for the characters we create, and maybe glamourise, as for the stories.

H3K

Offline Vogel

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 1533
    • View Profile
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #10 on: December 15, 2017, 09:00:00 AM »
Dasinger, some of my favorite characters of all time are antiheroes, or likable antagonists. I also find them fascinating. I want to get to know the antagonists just as well as the protagonists. I read an article a while back that we should be spending as much time developing our antagonists as we do our heroes. Think about it, the best villains of all time (IMO) have all been empathetic in some way or another, and many of them charming. Even in real life, it's not all black and white.

As far as charming thugs go, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan is one of my favorites. He is brilliant in character and so much fun to watch. Am I learning anything in the process? No, but I'm having a damn good time watching it. That's what I want from my readers.

I guess it comes back to genre and the audience expectations for that particular genre.
Quote
I do see it as my job to reflect the world as it is - and in the real world, thugs aren't charming.

And that's fine and necessary for some genres and stories, but there are other genres and stories (and readers) out there that demand bigger than life/glamorized characters.


I've often wondered/worried a bit that I will be judged for my antagonists behavior because I did conjure him up. But people are going to form their own opinions anyway, so I just write what I want to write and let it go. Often they're not going to interpret your story exactly how you meant for them to anyway.

Jo Bannister

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #11 on: December 18, 2017, 04:24:01 AM »
It rather looks as if everyone who wanted a say in this has had it, so perhaps itís my job to wind up the discussion.

It would be unfair to say I was disappointed with the response.   Disappointment implies a right of expectation, and all I have a right to expect from those who replied is honesty.  Common sense, ie agreeing with me, is an optional extra.

I was dismayed by the general feeling that this doesnít matter.  That having fun writing a piece is the important thing.  But these characters are our children: we are responsible for the effect they have on the world!

The written word is powerful.  Thatís why the first action of a new despot is usually to start burning books.  Writers are dangerous people: they carry a virulent contagion.  People who associate with them have been known to start thinking.

Iím left wondering why, if it isnít to influence how your readers think, you want to write at all.  It must be for the money, or the girls. 

Books make people think.  Sometimes, they make people think the unthinkable.  Books start revolutions.  Books end tyranny.  Even modest little books have the power to make people reassess how they see the world.  Anna Sewell wrote ďBlack BeautyĒ not to enchant generations of little girls but to improve the miserable lot of London cab horses. 

And by the way, isnít it rather cynical for people who enjoy the comfort and security of a modern democracy to despise those elected to govern?  They sure as hell arenít perfect, but anyone who thinks they can do better is free to try.  But Iíve never yet heard of refugees fleeing from all those forms of government which are worse than ours Ė by paddling rubber dinghies across open seas, wedging themselves under trains or smuggling themselves into freezing aircraft holds Ė meeting anyone coming the other way. 

So does it matter if what we write has no moral basis Ė no underpinning of ethics?  If we condone and glamorise people and ways of life that, in reality, we would be appalled to be confronted with?  If we launch emotionally bankrupt characters on an unsuspecting readership like teenagers lobbing fireworks into a crowded room, shirking all liability for the consequences?

Yes, it does.  Kipling described power without responsibility as the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, and Iím voting for him.



Offline Shortcross

  • Sr. Member
  • ****
  • Posts: 435
  • Carpeing the hell out of this diem
    • View Profile
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #12 on: December 18, 2017, 05:23:27 PM »
Quote
Books make people think.  Sometimes, they make people think the unthinkable.  Books start revolutions.  Books end tyranny.  Even modest little books have the power to make people reassess how they see the world.

I've lost count of the number of books I've bought that made me reassess why I wasted my money on them in the first place. 'The Dry' by Jane Harper was the last one (terrible).

You're talking about the greats, Jo. For every Nabokov or Sewell there are ten thousand Jane Harpers - the bookshops are heaving with mediocrity. Being a writer - even a published writer - doesn't automatically mean they have something profound to say, even if they are convinced they do and are writing for the 'right reasons' (i.e not money or girls, although they sound like pretty good reasons to me.)






Dansinger

  • Guest
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #13 on: December 18, 2017, 05:37:32 PM »
I was dismayed by the general feeling that this doesnít matter.  That having fun writing a piece is the important thing.  But these characters are our children: we are responsible for the effect they have on the world!

To me, yes, having fun writing a piece is the important thing. And if my characters might have an effect on the world - supposing the world ever sees them at all - would be a bonus.


People who associate with them have been known to start thinking.

I may certainly hope so. There's too many dumb people in the world already.

Iím left wondering why, if it isnít to influence how your readers think, you want to write at all.  It must be for the money, or the girls. 

Personally, I write because I have to. And even if nobody ever read a word I wrote, I'd still write. I cannot not write. So no, I don't write to influence people. I don't make money writing and I don't even write for the girls... though the latter would be nice, I have to admit. But here it is. I write for me.

Offline Gyppo

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 72186
  • I've been writing ever since I realised I could.
    • View Profile
Re: Moral maze
« Reply #14 on: December 18, 2017, 05:58:47 PM »
I must admit I do like my bad characters to come to a bad end.  Though sometimes they get away to play another day.  The moral ambiguity of my heroes who can stab and shoot with the best of the bad guys isn't lost upon me, but they do it for what they consider to be good reasons.  The right reasons.  When the government did away with the death penalty there had to be characters who were willing to play the role of public executioner.

Millions of servicemen from two major wars obviously didn't suddenly forget their deadly skills.  Most never used them again, which is just as well,  but for a writer these people are like primed bombs.  Hit the wrong button and they'll explode.

I like playing with characters who have either a natural - and sometimes unwanted - talent for violence, or have been trained so thoroughly it overrides their underlying nature.  Even more I like to play with those who fight those traits, but accept that sometimes they'll need to walk on the dark side for a while to protect others.

But I do draw the line at describing in full detail how to make a home-made bomb, even if my characters know.  Yes, I know the information is freely available on the internet, but I'd hate for someone to be in court and say they got the recipe from anything I wrote.  Fortunately there are many steps where an amateur bombmaker can go wrong and make a dud.

In that respect I do accept a moral responsibility for what I write.  But I write to entertain and perhaps inform, not to change the world.

Yes, people do sometimes assume that I must be like some of my characters.  If that makes them treat me with a bit more caution than they would otherwise, then that's a bonus ;-)

Gyppo

 
My website is currently having a holiday, but will return like the $6,000,000 man.  Bigger, stronger, etc.

In the meantime, why not take pity on a starving author and visit my book sales page at http://stores.lulu.com/gyppo1