This post was intended to only be a quick off-shoot from Sailing Without a Moral Compass, but just like the beanstalk of legend, it has rather grown and grown and grown!
Last time, we talked a lot about why I wasn’t going to be talking morals through the rest of this series, but of course we all incorporate some sort of moral code into our works, even if we do it unintentionally!
So I thought it might be useful to come up with a few really basic ‘rules’ to keep in mind when building the societal mores against which your characters will be called upon to make moral choices. Which let’s face it, they sort of have to be if you want to have any kind of conflict in your story.
On 10th December 1950, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, William Faulkner famously said this:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
I often think about this speech, and you should absolutely look up the full transcript if you haven’t already.
I think that fantasy writers can easily fall into the same traps that Faulkner was worried about. It’s really easy to write a story in which your big concern is ‘Will the Dragon eat me?’ And if your story is resting on those kinds of questions then there’s a big risk that any appeal it could have will be fleeting.
It’s not speaking to any universal human concerns and, as I said in the last post, there’s only so concerned you can get about the fate of someone who doesn’t exist, who may be eaten by the dragon that also doesn’t exist. And all the pretty scenery and finely-crafted languages in the world isn’t going to make that more interesting.
George R.R. Martin’s books are so interesting because although the world of Westeros is fascinating and the cultures of its peoples are intricate and fun, the actual struggles of the characters are deeply human and relatable. Do you put your family ahead of everything else? Do you sacrifice a golden opportunity for gain or love? How do you prioritise several major tasks, with failure not really being an option?
We may not be facing ice zombies and dragons, but we all have to ask ourselves some of these questions.
So it’s well-worth any writer’s time to sit down and really think about what web of rights and wrongs your characters are manoeuvring in.
#1 – Consistency is Key
This is one of those universal first rules of any element of world-building, and here it is cropping up again. Whatever you decide, you need to keep it consistent. If you establish something, and then you change it, you need to acknowledge that too.
I should mention that this is especially hard to keep track of and stick to if you are writing a series, so please, please, please give extra thought to establishing rules you can stick to as early as possible, if you can. It’s so tempting to make the rules into whatever you need for the plot to be advanced, but that’s the absolute worst thing you can do in a series.
If you are establishing that the Bad Guys are bad because they use certain methods, or do certain things (killing and/or torturing others would be the easy example here), maybe don’t have the Good Guys use those same methods later on, but now try to frame those actions in a totally different light because this time it’s The Good Guys.
Inconsistencies ruin reader’s trust in writers. (Note: Unreliable Narrators are a different matter.) If you keep changing the goal-posts to suit yourself then no one can take anything you say seriously.
There’s a reason why, for most of the Second Wizarding War, in Harry Potter, Harry’s signature move is to disarm his opponents, rather than kill them. All Harry needs to do is make sure they can’t hurt people, he doesn’t need them dead, so he uses the pre-established spell to make this happen. If Harry from Book Five onwards was killing people right and left, but the Death Eaters were condemned for killing their opponents, well… We’d all be a bit less inclined to root for Harry and his cause, wouldn’t we? (Note: This is also why Harry actively torturing a man, before being complimented for it, in the last book is tricky for me to get past, for the record.)
Something that always bothered me in the Harry Potter series, by contrast, was the attitudes on child-safety. I mean, it’s hard to argue with Mrs Weasley in The Order of the Phoenix when she’s desperate to keep her children out of the war effort for their own safety. This is a totally reasonable thing for any mother (or responsible adult) to strive to do. The kids may not be happy about it, but there’s probably names for adults who use child-soldiers, and I doubt they are polite ones.
This is a little bit rich when Harry and his friends have been endangered by the wizarding world every single year Harry’s been in school, and none of the adults have been overly concerned about it until now. Heck, in The Chamber of Secrets, the whole school had a murderous threat attacking students roaming the school freely and neither the school staff, nor the parents, thought that perhaps the school needed to be closed until this thing was caught? Really?
1 cat, 1 ghost and 4 students were petrified, before another student was straight-up kidnapped, and the school still wasn’t closed and the parents didn’t withdraw their children?
Not to mention the very next year, in which soul-sucking demons were considered a perfectly good choice to provide security for this same school of children, despite boarding the train there, and invading twice, posing a massive health risk at all times?
And this is the society that now thinks children should be protected at all costs?
Do you see how these kind of inconsistencies can end up making perfectly normal and understandable beliefs suddenly seem totally weird and out of place? And yes, I know that if any adults in those books had done the sane thing then there would have been no stories, but that isn’t the issue here.
There should be absolutely nothing wrong with Mrs Weasley wanting her children to be safe. This should not feel weird. And yet I was sat there completely siding with Harry the emotionally unstable teenager over the responsible adults because child-safety has never once before seemed even remotely on anyone’s list of concerns.
#2 – Why is pushing boundaries okay (or not)?
As discussed last time, every single rule that society runs on has an ‘Unless’ Clause buried in there somewhere, although what can be included in that clause tends to change over time. Examples of ‘Unless’ Clauses may include; unless it was in self-defence, unless they deserved it, unless they believe in something different to you, unless they look different in some way.
Everyone’s lines are in different places, but pretty much everyone has some form of ‘Unless’ written into their ideas of what is ‘wrong’. Therefore it makes sense that every single one of your characters has an ingrained code of ethics, and some form of ‘Unless’ Clause to go with it (See #5).
I should note here that this is not the same as the concerns of #1, detailed above. The difference between allowing yourself to slide into inconsistencies, and building in ‘Unless’ clauses is that the latter is done both on purpose and for a purpose. It needs to be addressed within the narrative, and preferably justified either by the narrator, or between two characters. It should be making a point about the personal morality of the characters and potential short-comings of the beliefs they may hold. Changing your rules half-way through to better suit the plot is jarring for the reader, but the hesitance of a character to follow their own rules is interesting character development.
Some writers have been especially creative in establishing societal mores and when they can be pushed or broken, and my favourite example of this is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. In his world, all humans have dæmons, physical manifestations of their souls, walking around with them. So far so good. And no one, no one, is allowed to touch someone else’s dæmon ever. There are physical reactions to this being broken, and emotional and mental damage can be done as well. As readers, we read about the effects of someone touching another’s dæmon, and it’s absolutely sickening.
So the rule is: Never Touch Another’s Dæmon.
As readers, we instantly feel like there’s a logical reason for this, because why would you want random people touching your soul? We may not have dæmons ourselves, but we certainly don’t think the idea of someone getting handsy with something like our souls, do we?
Of course there is an established exception. People touching other people’s dæmons without that level of trust is immediately understood to be intrinsically wrong, and Pullman doesn’t need to keep hammering that in to his readers every time it happens. But if we were to see two people touching dæmons without any negative repercussions, then we immediately understand that we’re being told something important too.
Unless You Are Especially Intimate With Them and Trust Them That Much.
And there it is! Because we’ve had this rule so firmly established, when we first understand that people could touch each other’s dæmons without anything awful happening, the implications feel enormous, without Pullman needing to belabour the point. He can trust his readers to make the jump and because the impact of the gesture in the world is so huge, it feels huge to us too.
This is a great example of really efficient story-telling, where by establishing something nice and early, an author no longer needs to tell the audience how to feel about something that happens, or what it means. We can figure that out for ourselves, and react as is appropriate. No I’m not trying to find ways to not write things and still have a story, honest!
#3 – Costs and Consequences
So, I know I’m far from the first person to say this, and this certainly won’t be the last time it’s brought up in this series, but: All Actions Should Have Consequences.
In too many stories, especially children’s, there’s a pervasive idea that ‘good’ actions are easily identifiable, and have no downsides, thus making them easy to pursue. And only bad actions cost people, because ‘crime doesn’t pay’ or something.
I respectfully disagree with this idea, not just because I find it unrealistic and unhelpful to children who may believe us when we sell them this idea.
No I dislike it because it automatically ruins half the drama inherent in every single decision a character makes, and renders them dull. A writer has to find other ways to make a character interesting, but seems unaware that a much better solution was frantically waving from the cutting room floor where it’s been tossed.
Let’s take a moment to talk about my favourite version of this in action: George Bailey’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Now lots of people have this rosy image of this story; they remember the angel, Clarence; they remember George running down the street in the snow at the end shouting Merry Christmas! to everyone; and if they want to pick it apart a bit, they’ll sneer at the idea that being a spinster librarian is the worst thing that could happen to Mary, because being alone in life with a job no one will thank you for is absolutely marvellous, as I can personally attest.
But taking a second, more adult look at this story reveals the interesting idea that George Bailey has done all these good acts through his life, and been soundly punished by the universe for his troubles. He saves his brother from drowning and in doing so he loses the hearing in his left ear. He stops his boss from accidentally putting poison into a child’s prescription, and has his ears boxed. He gives his tuition savings to his brother so he can ‘temporarily’ run the family business, giving up his own plans to see the world in the process, but Harry gets a better offer when the time comes to repay George the favour, and George just has to keep smiling throughout all of it.
And what fascinates me when I watch this procession of good deeds going punished, is how much George doesn’t like performing them. He’s aware at every point of what he’s giving up, what he’s suffering, for the sake of doing the right thing. He’s not happy because of his choices. And he does it anyway. Not because he’s selfless, but because it’s the right thing to do.
The other thing I love about this story is the subversive way that the film represents evil. Not in the form of Mr Potter, the face of capitalism (I think? That’s what Mr Potter represents, right? I didn’t do film theory). No, the wrong or ‘evil’ choice to juxtapose with the good is the decision to simply do nothing.
In the world where George isn’t born, we get to see what happens, not of people making the wrong choices, but in no one making any choice at all. The world where George doesn’t save his brother, doesn’t prevent his boss poisoning a child, doesn’t save the Building and Loan.
We too often see the descent into evil in stories as a series of ‘bad choices’, like it’s something one has to actively chose. But the choice to do nothing can be just as bad.
It’s a Wonderful Life teaches us that the point of doing the right thing isn’t to be rewarded, George doesn’t get a grand reward at the end so much as he isn’t punished for another’s mistakes. The point of doing good is simply that it must be done, no matter what the cost.
#4 – Create Your Own Grey Areas
Now, you may read this one and think, But Cameron, isn’t this just #2 all over again And no, that’s not what I mean.
I mean that you need to think of areas which are developing in the world you are building which simply don’t have an established set of rules yet, or where those rules are starting to be questioned so much that they are actively breaking down.
For an example, think of our world today and the increasing rise of A.I. and robots and how human society is finally having to struggle with the same issues that Science Fiction always said we’d struggle with; humans becoming redundant, computers becoming more intelligent than ourselves, what is and isn’t acceptable from A.I., whether or not the robots will rebel. (Are we still worried about that? I think we’re still worried about that… Maybe only Hollywood thinks we’re still worried about that…)
Any day now I suspect we’ll all reach a stage when we have to start the discussion on A.I. Rights and whatnot. Somewhere out there, Issac Asimov is so proud of us.
Anyway every single era of history has had to confront some new oncoming storm of change, and had to change or evolve its ideas of right and wrong to accommodate it. Whether this might be Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death, in which women were able to achieve more independence in a diminished society and how this confronted established ideas about a woman’s place (this one comes up time and again; see also The Frist and Second World Wars), or the sixteenth century wherein the invention of the printing press allowed the rapid spread and discussion of ideas which shook the foundation of religion, science, and politics, or the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the rise of capitalism allowed for greater social mobility as trading families made enough money to stand shoulder to shoulder with Old Money.
There’s literally never been a point in history when Time stood still and there was some great internal struggle in society, so why write yourself a fantasy world in which everything is settled and has been for a long time?
Have a bit of fun with your world and think of some interesting ways to challenge its inhabitants and push them into confronting new areas of right and wrong which they may not be comfortable in. The easy way is to start a war of course, but I do urge fantasy writers to go and spend time with the sci-fi guys (What? I liked that rhyme.) and think of other things that can be invented or discovered to throw everything into question and turmoil. Did a new industry grow up to disturb traditional employment and wealth acquisition? Did new magic get developed to extend life-spans or preserve people’s minds forever?
#5 – A Sense of Scale or What is an acceptable loss?
So… So this one’s not a nice thing to think about, but I would also argue that it is the most important thing to define as a writer when world-building for any story whatsoever.
It’s tied into #2 to some extent and that is the question of what does your society at large, and then the individuals within it, consider to be an acceptable loss in any situation?
What can be tossed to the wayside, if necessary, to get through a situation? For your business to succeed, smaller businesses will go bust, is that an acceptable loss? If you are on a quest that gets difficult, would leaving your animal sidekick behind to an uncertain fate be an acceptable loss? How many people could die on this quest before it became an unacceptably high price for your mission?
In terms of crafting the climax of your story, this point is especially interesting, because it raises the issue of whether your characters may find their victory ‘Pyrrhic’ (when the victory is considered to have cost more than it was remotely worth.)
Now before going any further, it’s important to recognise that none of this will come out of nowhere. For society to consider something to be an acceptable level of loss, it needs to be tied into what that society prizes and thinks is important.
Consider a real-world example; if a bus were to crash and thirteen people were injured, but none were killed, it may be reasonable to call the thing a relief, despite the fact that those thirteen people are most certainly not going to agree with you. That’s because we tend to consider anything less than death to be a good outcome, regardless of the long-term effects on those who survive.
When building your own society, have a good dissect of our own values and the actions that these values inform and enforce, and see what you might change in your own world. Do you want a world to feel exactly like our own, or one that feels totally foreign to your reader and makes them uncomfortable?
For example, if there was a disaster in which people had to give up their lives to save others, in the West, we’d naturally save the children before anything else, because we value their innocence and the chance of a new beginning that they represent. If I were to build a culture that inherently feels totally alien to a Western world, therefore, I might build a society that prizes not innocence but experience, and have the same scenario play out but with the evacuation going from the oldest to the youngest, as those with more experience and knowledge would be considered more valuable than those who know comparatively little. If you just felt vaguely weird right there, then good. That’s what you should feel.
Putting It All Together…
And now we put all of these elements together! Aaaand then we start writing a story where all of these elements come into conflict with each other…
Yep, because let’s face it, no system of morality covers every scenario, that’s why humans are asked to be good at thinking for themselves. We can’t always do what the instruction manual tells us, because life gets in the way.
And this is where William Faulkner’s words from the start of this post come back for us, because the real drama in the best stories comes not from the fear of the bomb blowing up, or the dragon eating our hero. It’s because our hero believes two or more things to be true and right, and then finds that he can only follow one of those rules. And now he must decide which road to travel.
That’s where the conflict comes in.
There’s been a lot of emphasis, it seems to me, over the past five years or so, in writing grittier, more edgy fantasy. We seem to be getting away from the Swords & Sorcery style of stories, and heading towards a darker, ‘more realistic’ world. And the best way I can think of to do this is to give some real thought to different ways that societies can approach this complicated practical exam called Life. To establish in new and inventive ways all the aspects of life that would be affected by the values and costs of such beliefs. To get the audience reeeally comfortable in a certain way of thinking… and then heartlessly push them into all the uncomfortable quandaries those approaches leave our characters in.
Depth doesn’t come from a bigger dragon, it comes from the smaller moments when we face up to the hard questions and know that there aren’t any good or easy answers. And accept, deep down where it hurts us most, that someone is going to pay the price of those answers either way.
Next time we’re going to be thinking about redemption as the paying of debt. If this post was interesting to you, check out the rest of the series here. And if you’re interested in the potential to be found in experimenting with the structure of a redemption arc, check out my case study of Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened.