The Moral Universe In fiction.

cross blogWelcome 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)

 

SYDNEY –
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 The Husband's Secretcreated 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 Mansfield Parkselfishness 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.

JENNY –
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.

Writing the breakout novelSuper 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.

SYDNEY –
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.

Anna KareninaStories 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.

BB14

 

Donald Maas And The Novelist’s Paradox

Donald MaasI’ve said before what a fan I am of legendary literary agent and author Donald Maas. I first encountered him when reading Writing The Breakout Novel. What a book! Maas outlines the essential elements of a commercially successful novel, including beginning with a defined theme. I’d never thought of doing that before. I’d just hoped a coherent theme would somehow emerge amorphously from the growing manuscript. Now I consciously plan a theme before starting the story.

paradoxBut what I find most interesting, particularly when I’m at the stage of plotting a new book, is his concept of the novelist’s paradox – your story matters more than anything, and your story matters not at all. It matters more than anything because fiction injected with high purpose and high stakes carries more force than fiction that merely seeks to entertain. If it provokes thought and moves our hearts, it will remain in our memory. But an author who lets their story matter too much, may rush past much of its potential greatness. It’s important to relax and take the time to dig deep – deep into your characters’ motivations, conviction and nature. Not taking the story too seriously gives you the freedom to explore these inner journeys. A difficult balancing act!

Writing the breakout novelDonald Maas tips for writing characters that matter to readers:
– Your character matters to someone else. Whom? Why? Find a moment for them to weigh that responsibility and rise to it.
– The conflict means something personal to your character. What? What piece of them would be lost if they fail? How will they become whole if they succeed?
– What’s going on in the scene you’re writing? If it illustrates a larger principle, have your character recognize that.
– Your character is on a personal journey. Seeking what? Finding what instead? What’s already accomplished? What’s left to learn? Put it down on the page.

BB2013_Nominee

What Makes a Good Story?

Currawong Creek is all set to be published in June. I’m now 20,000 words into my new novel, and have been dedicating a fair bit of thinking time to the deceptively simple question of what makes a good story?

Tell me a storyFor me, the most important thing is that a writer needs to have something to say. Now this might appear to be self-evident, but think about it. Have you ever been bailed-up by someone who can talk and talk and talk, but really, has nothing to say? You begin to look for escape routes, ways to politely excuse yourself. It’s easier than that for readers. For if a novel isn’t animated by a powerful theme, then the reader can just close the book.

Writing from the heartA good writer in my view, writes from the heart. And an interesting novel must in some way take a stand. It must confront its reader, by presenting conflicting values and beliefs. Think of your favourite books, and consider for yourself, whether or not this is true. For me, writing that lacks a point is lifeless, full of ornamental adjectives and decorative imagery maybe, but lifeless just the same. Readers won’t waste their time on sentence after sentence without meaning, BUT If the writer believes, that whatever he or she has to say, MUST be said, that passion will come through the pages and grip us, as readers. We’ll care about the characters, we’ll suffer with them, we’ll hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding story tellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they are. Let them power your story. Let them challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care a lot about the subject of your writing and it will show.

Writing the breakout novelI’d like to finish with nine gems from Donald Maass, legendary New York literary agent. His seminal work, Writing The Breakout Novel has long been my bible.

  1. Think writing tools, not rules.
  2. Emotions are what connect us to the characters of a novel. What engages your heart will engage your reader. 
  3. Create interiority. Create an emotional landscape that the characters travel through–your story’s interiority.
  4. Reveal yourself through your fiction by writing from a personal place, a place of passion, a place of experience, a place that matters. Give these emotions and motivations to your characters.
  5. Genre categories have become a palette from which writers may draw from to create unique hybrids. Great fiction will not be bound by conventions.
  6. Surprise your readers. Don’t just write about the emotions that they expect. Think about the strongest emotions that you have experienced and then think about the underlying ones, the subtle ones. Write about those emotions instead of what the reader would expect from the scene/plot. Again, surprise your readers.
  7. Write your stories like they matter, and they will matter. Powerful fiction comes from a very personal place.
  8. Readers read to make sense of the world.Your reader wants some kind of insight into the antagonist. Who looks up to your antagonist? What does he have to gain? To lose? Why must he reach his goals? How much will he lose to meet his goal? What will he gain? Help your reader view life through the villain’s motivations and perspective. Make your antagonist multi-dimensional.
  9. Beautiful Writing + Commercial Writing (page turners) = High Impact Writing.

BB2013_Nominee