Welcome to our monthly blog chat about the craft of fiction.
Today, writing guru Sydney Smith and I talk about the moral universe in stories. (Fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson will be back on board sometime in the New Year)
Every writer creates their own moral universe in their fiction, even when they don’t realise they’re doing it. When the goodies win and the baddies are sent to prison, or killed, or otherwise defeated, that is evidence of a moral universe at work, one created by the writer. I recently read The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty, in which a man has kept a dark secret for twenty-eight years. When his wife discovers it, she decides to keep it, too. Because of this moral transgression, a terrible accident occurs in which their daughter, Polly, only six years old, loses her arm. The reader is meant to understand that this is the couple’s punishment for keeping that harmful secret. The accident wouldn’t have happened if the husband had confessed to the police many years ago. Liane chose to punish this couple in this way. The characters are Catholics; the husband has been in permanent Lent ever since he did the deed that had to be kept a secret. And so the punishment has a whiff of the church about it. Liane wants the reader to understand that. This is her moral universe, and though it does carry the odour of myrrh and brimstone, it is one she has created.
Jane Austen created a more original moral universe in her fiction. The greatest sin is doing harm to others through selfishness. Again and again we see destructive selfishness being punished in social ways. For example, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram marries Mr Rushworth for money and commits adultery with Henry Crawford. Her sin is exposed and she is ostracised. Henry Crawford is also punished by losing Fanny Price, the moral agent in the novel who could have saved him. In Jane Austen, a good life is first and foremost one that does no harm.
I have to admit that I find this business of the moral universe interesting yet problematic. I’m not all that interested in the straightforward universe where the goodies win and the baddies lose in spades, although of course I read fiction that displays this kind of moral equation all the time. But when it comes to creating my own moral universe, the one that operates in my fiction, I find myself hogtied by a superabundance of sympathy for my characters, even those who do bad things.
I also have a great deal of sympathy for villains. Fifteen years as a foster-parent and working in legal aid has convinced me that nobody is evil. Psychopaths and sociopaths are made, not born―their generally tragic back-stories make them who they are. But however they ended up that way, some people are bad, and we all know how to spot them. Lack of empathy and remorse; irresponsibility, selfishness, greed and cruelty. Cheaters, liars, fraudsters, abusers―I’m happy to label these character traits as bad. Of course good people can also display these traits. It’s a matter of degree. Writers rely on their readers sharing this common understanding.
Super literary agent and author Donald Maas emphasises the significance of a moral universe in his book, Writing The Breakout Novel.
‘Novels are moral. In fact, all stories convey society’s underlying values, whether they are danced around a campfire or packaged in sleek trade paperbacks. Stories are the glue that holds together our fragile human enterprise.’
He believes that readers want their values validated, but not in a simplistic, moralising way.
‘They may not want to be converted, but they do want to be stretched. They want to feel that at the end of the book their views were right, but they were arrived at after a struggle. A skilful breakout novelist can spin a tale so persuasive that at the end, the reader feels the underlying point was one with which they always have agreed, even though they may have never before considered it.’
I love this, and always keep it in mind when I’m writing. Donald Maas taught me not to be afraid of my own moral compass. Instead, I let it fuel the narrative. Hopefully, that passion will come through the pages and grip my readers. They’ll care about the characters, suffer with them, hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding storytellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they may be. Let them power your story, challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care, a lot, about the subject of your writing and it will show.
Heavens above, I feel like a wimp after those bracing comments, Jenny!
I guess this points to the difference between a good writer and one who doesn’t quite make it. A good writer loves their villains, their antagonists, their baddies, while also understanding that, in order to make the moral point, they have to punish them in some way. What that punishment is depends on the kind of novel being written. The way Liane Moriarty punished her husband and wife was appropriate to the kind of novel she wrote, commercial women’s fiction. I really understood why the wife decided to keep her husband’s secret―if she didn’t, she feared her family would fall apart. She believed her family’s integrity, its ability to retain its emotional and psychological shape, depended on the presence of her husband. Liane implied that there is a higher need than keeping a family together, and that is the moral duty owed to those who suffered because of his dark deed. She got us to this point by creating enormous empathy for the wife, whose POV was privileged over that of her husband. That empathy made the punishment seem all the more devastating.
Stories try to teach us about right and wrong, good and bad. Many of them do this in a straightforward way. I personally prefer fiction that delineates the moral problem in more subtle ways. Is Anna Karenina wrong for placing her personal need for sexual love ahead of her child’s need for his mother and her duty to her husband? Or is society wrong for creating customs that allow a woman to pursue her personal desires, so long as she does it discreetly, under the auspices of hypocrisy? I read in an introduction to that great novel that Tolstoy first created a coarse and unlikeable Anna. Over time he modulated her into the sympathetic woman we know. He did this because he understood that a coarse Anna won’t carry the moral point as effectively as a charming, likeable Anna. When she throws herself under the train, we feel the horror of her despair because we loved her, not because she did a selfish thing. At the same time we understand that she had to pay in some way for what she did. Yet there is no sense of resolution in her death―at least, there isn’t for me. The love between Levin and Kitty balances out the story by showing us what is right by confirming our own feeling that love survives best when it does no harm.
Which gets me no nearer understanding how to create and enact my own moral universe!
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at Set Your Book Free.
What a fascinating topic! As a reader I’ve long known that villains can be far more charismatic than characters who are just ‘good’ [however you define that]. As a writer, however, I know that crime often prospers, without any punishment at all. That, sadly, is the reality of the world in which we live.
Given that bleak worldview, I find it next to impossible to provide a nice, cathartic punishment to my characters. However I do try very hard to make them all ‘grow’ in some way, even my bad guys. Whether that resonates with readers, however, I don’t know. 🙁
If you believe in Karma, there is always a consequence to doing harm, even if it’s not immediately apparent to us mere mortals. In my books I enjoy making it more transparent than that!
Thank you Jennifer and Sydney for an extremely interesting topic. As a reader, I find that I become very involved in the lives and stories of characters, and although I will ride the emotional and moral roller coasters of the stories, I have never really considered these things in such depth.