Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: Why We’re Sailing Without Our Moral Compass

I don’t know if this happens to other bloggers, but sometimes it happens that I decide to write a bunch of posts on a theme, and I list out all the topics that I want to talk about, I collect up some good case-studies, and I start writing… and then I realise that I’ve started in the wrong place.

This is one of those times.

Because this series was intended to focus almost entirely on the structural aspects of a good redemption arc, to look at creating a sense of narrative balance, and the most effective ways to use the more common mechanics redemption arcs include, such as a Tragic Backstory, or a Turning Point. And as I re-read my notes I realised that there was a curious lack of any discussion about the moral issues that redemption arcs raise and struggle with and (hopefully) answer.

This wasn’t exactly a missing piece; I didn’t simply forget about morality or anything, but I realised that I did need to start the series off properly with some sort of discussion about why I’ve decided to leave morality out for the most part.

Sailing without our moral compass

Everyone Knows It’s Wrong…

One of the reasons why I feel like a writing series like mine has no business talking about morality is that, quite simply, everyone’s ideas about what’s morally right or wrong are different. I know we all think that we agree on the broader aspects of what’s acceptable and not, but everyone draws the line in a different place.

Like most people, I have a variety of friends with whom I like to discuss films, books and TV shows, and we’ll happily natter along about characters, scenes, and most importantly themes in various pieces of work. It’s all good fun, and it helps me to figure out what I really like about things and how I can incorporate elements into my own work and it also helps me, if for example I’ve seen a film that rubbed me up the wrong way in some form, work out what it was that I found objectionable.

The thing is, though, that the biggest and most long-running arguments I’ve ever had with my friends have been on those very same topics. It’s even reached a point where with every single friend there is at least one film, or book or franchise that we have mutually agreed to Never Speak Of Again. (The capital letters mean that it’s serious this time!)

Why do we get to this stage? You may be wondering.

Well, it’s essentially all down to one thing – we have different moral compasses and there are simply very different things we’ll all bend on or not. Things we’ll allow to slide for the sake of an interesting character or a really juicy plot, and other things which we feel simply cannot be walked back on later.

For example, sometimes you find yourself arguing that a character accidentally killing someone else through their bad decisions earlier in the story is simply a mistake and they should be allowed to amend their ways, learn from the experience and get on with their story. And another person may equally correctly argue that if this same character had used an ounce of common sense from the start, that entire episode would never have happened.

So no, there’s no point in assuming that all my readers will have the same moral code I have at all, and therefore judging a story on its morals is a little tricky.

After all, fiction isn’t real life, and the rules are what writers tells us they are.

And speaking of writers…

Why You Can Never Trust Writers

Apart from being highly personal, morality is also a completely relative concept.

It’s utterly dependent on the context of an idea or action, and that’s what’s always been its biggest strength and weakness combined. Is killing wrong? Yes. Except when you did it for a good reason. Is theft wrong? Yes. Except if it was for a good reason. And we make our minds up as outside observers based entirely on what information is presented to us in order to contextualise a character’s actions.

This will not be news to you as writers, even small children instinctively know this after all, and no one needed to tell them!

Ask any pair of six year olds about the fistfight you just broke up and you’ll promptly be given two totally different stories, in which the child speaking is clearly the innocent party and the other was utterly at fault. You know as you listen to them that they’ve edited out their poor behaviour and emphasised the other’s in an effort to justify themselves. They may not have all the fancy terms to describe this rhetorical device, but they certainly know how to do it!

What I’m building up to here is this: Never Trust a Writer.

No seriously, never ever trust writers! Even if you are also a writer!

Why?

Because writers can make anything seem like a reasonable action to take. Anything. You thought you would be against some action no matter what? Too bad! Writers can make you sympathise with it, at least for a little while. You thought some things were only done by monsters? Writers will give you some lovely, related protagonists and have you cheering them on as they perform exactly those acts!

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has you desperately hoping that a bunch of unrepentant murderers get away scot free. The Italian Job has you cheering on a crew of career-criminals stealing $4 million, not to mention utterly ruining a whole city of people’s day by causing a city-wide traffic jam for hours. How anyone manages to do that considering how much everyone despises getting stuck in traffic, is amazing to me!

Why are writers especially good at this? Well, as writers we are completely in control of the worlds our stories take place in. This isn’t history, wherein a narrative that’s been built up out of selectively picked bits of information can be overturned when someone looks up all the information that’s been carefully left out. Writers, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, must create all of the information that could ever exist.

You want the murderers in Murder on the Orient Express to get away with it because the man they killed murdered a child and caused the deaths of four more people, before escaping justice. Those people just want to get closure and justice and the law failed them so they did it themselves. You hate that man, and by the end you’re really glad that he’s dead.

But the only things we’re told about the murdered man is that he’s a kidnapper, a brutal child-killer, and an extortionist who’s now a bit sad that after a life of crime people want to kill him.

What we don’t see him do is feel remorse for what he’s done. We never see him trying to make amends by, I don’t know, funding several orphanages and schools to ease his conscience as to the origins of his wealth. Therefore we assume he doesn’t feel any, and he probably didn’t. But his death would immediately feel different if you knew that he was trying to make amends and that more unseen people are going to suffer now that he’s dead.

Nothing Is Real

You know how I mentioned in the first section that fiction is different from real life? (Yes, I know, I totally blew your mind with that insight!) Well, this is where that really comes into play.

Because we might all have different beliefs about morality, but we are all united in one thing with fiction: Nothing that happens in it is real and these characters do not matter.

I know, I’ve just broken the cardinal rule of writing, but it’s worth thinking about.

Because while fiction can reflect real life and shape real life, maybe even help us deal with real life, you know what it’s not? Real life.

So the actions that characters take in your work of fiction do not, on the most basic of levels, matter.

It’s one of the reasons why, where possible, storytellers like to tell you that their story is ‘Based on Real Events’. Because you care more about what happens when you think that you’re being given something real.

The Titanic movie wouldn’t be nearly so compelling if you didn’t know that all those people you watched die – by drowning, by freezing, by the engines blowing out – all those people really died. If they were just a bunch of made-up people who died in a totally made-up disaster, would you actually care all that much? Probably not.

Horror films like using this technique for the same reasons, although obviously that takes more of a suspension of disbelief, because I absolutely will buy that there’s a lot in this world we’re not aware of, but I feel like if vampires were readily available, I wouldn’t be hearing it first from a 2009 movie…

This is why fantasy writers are at a disadvantage. Yes, we have the freedom to get all creative with our worldbuilding and make up anything we want to, but all the events and actions and conflicts that we create to happen inside that world are effectively as tangible as Scotch Mist.

This isn’t the engine room of the Titanic burning men to death in 1912; it’s a dragon burning people for raiding its treasure hoard. That’s never going to fly if you tell people it really happened, and if it didn’t really happen then why should your audience care?

Of course, this challenge is by no means insurmountable. In fact you’ve probably scaled it in your writing already! Because while the events of a work of fiction are made-up, the emotions shouldn’t be. People’s thoughts, their feelings and logic should all feel real, it’s why people do things that matters in fiction, not what they do.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand this links us back up to the second point I made earlier. Don’t Trust Writers With Morality!

Because you’ll only care if the writer makes you care, or allows you to care. If you ever need a good example of someone being really aware of how much power a writer has over a reader’s empathy and moral investment in the events of a story, I can think of no better case than the dedication in one of Terry Pratchett’s books.

In 1989, Terry Pratchett wrote Guards! Guards!, the first book in a series about characters who would, in any other fantasy setting, be at best supporting characters, but usually only existed in the background of bigger stories; The Night Watch of Ankh Morpork.

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, around about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film), to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.

This book is dedicated to those fine men.

What interests me here isn’t the subversion of the fantasy trope, in which the side characters are the heroes and the young man with a sword called in by the city to save the day is so utterly meaningless that I’m not sure he ever got a name. (If he did, I didn’t catch it on my first thirty times of reading the book…)

What fascinates me is the way Terry Pratchett blatantly points out that we as an audience customarily watch or read about these, say, twelve men getting killed for just doing their jobs … and we don’t care. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they had families to whom they are never going to return. The story will barely remark upon their whole existence, except to revel in the hero’s skill at killing people.

Terry Pratchett made some of his best characters in this series. And he made them by giving faces and names and lives to the people we normally are never told to care about.

I keep saying in this series that writers wield a huge amount of power over their characters and readers. Well this is another of those times.

Because writers literally have the power to make a rational, good person desperately want someone to get away with murder. To want people to successfully rob banks. To not bat a single eyelid in the face of a senseless loss of life.

 As writers, we are all totally free to use whatever moral hoops we need to make a story interesting, compelling and tangible. Have a good think about what you really want to paint as being ‘acceptable’ and not, because you literally do make the rules in your own world!

As an audience, it is always worth asking yourself, ‘Why am I okay with this action? Would I think it was okay if I knew more about these people?’ Hopefully it won’t spoil a story for you; that would be awful! I just think its good practice for looking at real life, where we often have to go looking for more information than is readily given to us.

Also, considering the vast army of reboots and remakes in the film industry at the moment that spring from the idea that the villain from the original was actually the Good Guy the whole time, maybe take it as a chance to remember why they were the villain all along?

If you enjoy talking about the nitty-gritty of putting stories together, be sure to check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series.

Also let me know in the comments if you end up having weirdly intense arguments with your friends about the actions of people who don’t exist and why they wouldn’t be invited to your equally non-existent dinner parties. I need to know it’s not just us…

Author:

Writer. Crafter. Nerd.

13 thoughts on “Redemption Arcs: Why We’re Sailing Without Our Moral Compass

  1. Yeah getting into these questions can quickly derail a discussion, but I think it’s important and worthwhile to have them, because you can reach fascinating conclusions, For instance, in your first example, I think those two things can be true simultaneously- eg a character has the option to never take the wrong path, but also they can achieve some level of redemption if they change course (it’s the ultimate Darth Vader question and it’s fascinating). I don’t view morality as relative I’m afraid- and I’ve never met a moral relativist who acts that out successfully (or moral relativists would have to concede that I’m also right thinking that they’re totally wrong- which would be a self defeating argument). On a functional level, we all act within certain confines- for example you can only have a discussion about what constitutes theft, or discuss mitigating circumstances, if you agree with the concept of theft, which everyone can get their head round from a rational perspective (or an emotive one, if you so choose). Not to say there can’t be plurality (see above, two opinions can exist and simultaneously be correct) but there’s still a finite number of immoral/moral acts.
    Writer’s certainly manipulate our emotions and rationality to create sympathy. Hmm I think there’s an element of truth to that- fact can be a powerful emotive tool- however it’s easy to get swept up in completely fictitious events (I’ve sobbed over the hobbit for instance). I think at the same time it’s like you said- it’s not real, so we can forgive ourselves for not taking it too seriously and siding with the “wrong” characters 😉
    Really thought provoking post! Hope you don’t mind me thinking (/typing) aloud!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this, it’s great to hear what people think!
      I don’t mean to say that morality is relative in and of itself, so much as we constantly rank various actions as relative to other ones, which is the more dangerous thing, to me. Like, we all know that theft is wrong, but hey, it’s not like it’s as wrong as murder, which is not as wrong as torture. And that’s all fine and good, but this doesn’t mean that theft is fine simply because there’s worse that can be done to you! And that’s the powerful thing about people who are good at telling and selling stories, both in fiction as well as in real life, because you can radically change how people feel about something purely through the information you surround the same issue with.
      I remember my dad being really keen to show me the second season of the Beiderbecke series (the Beiderbecke Tapes) which is all about the government ‘leaking’ mis-information about where to put nuclear waste in the Yorkshire Dales, so that when they deny this and say they want to put it in a different place, everyone’s response will be ‘Well, at least it’s not in the Dales, it could be worse!’ I remember my Dad saying that once you’ve understood this principle, so much of adult life makes sense, and it was definitely an eye-opener!
      Anyway, I’m glad that you found the post interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes for sure! Fair point! I get what you mean- that makes a lot of sense! Gosh that really is eye-opening and I think you make an excellent point. Definitely found it thought provoking! Thanks for explaining that to me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s a very specific sense of humour, but I do so love it! Just two people who’d really liek to get on with living their quiet little lives, and yet never seem to manage it. also peak people who do not care what the world thinks of them, but are old enough that they aren’t being whiny about it. They just keep on keeping on. And the supporting cast are made of solid gold comedy and I love them all so much!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hahah this was an AWESOME article! I know what you mean about ‘never trust a writer’ – completely agree! My views are fluid and I’ve found I can change my own opinion with the flip of a coin, or argue both sides if I need too. (The units I excelled at the most at university were philosophy and critical and creative reasoning). BUT not sure if I succeed at influencing my friends though haha. I’m too much of a pushover. I do have this one friend who has such unmovable opinions that I can’t discuss ANYTHING with him. I probably shouldn’t be friends with him, but he is a nice guy at heart. But still, it’s tough facing off with someone who thinks they ARE RIGHT ALL THE TIME AND IS ADAMANT THAT GOOGLE IS WRONG. I mean, yeah sometimes google is wrong, so I suppose they have a point. But how to be sure??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some people can be really hard to debate anything with if they aren’t interested in at least considering other people’s perspectives! Still, I know what you mean about having fun with them anyway!
      I’m glad you liked the post! And that you’re with me in understanding how fluid people’s views can be about things. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because it means that we can adapt easily to new scenarios and whatnot, but it does mean that we can be easy prey for a good story-writers and then think ‘Wait a minute! Did I just become ok with this? How?!’
      Thanks for getting in touch!

      Like

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