Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Moral of the Story

In 2012, a thread on the NaNoWriMo Plot Doctoring forum asked, 'What exactly is it that makes a story worth telling in your opinion?'  One commenter of many claimed that 'fiction [doesn't need to] teach you a moral lesson or even have a moral outcome'.  To this, I replied:

When we talk about stories having morals, though, we generally mean one of two things, which in practice often overlap but are probably worth distinguishing:

1. The story shows approval of characters, actions, or situations in accordance with the demands of an ethical system (e.g., the kind people win and the mean people lose; the poor are happy and the rich are sad; the people who care deeply about things are shown favourably and the cynical people are shown unfavourably); or

2. The story illustrates a general truth about the world or human nature (e.g., slow and steady wins the race).

It seems to me that every story has the first kind of morals, because every person has some system (conscious or unconscious) by which to approve of virtues and disapprove of vices and rank them by importance. (For instance, many people think that stealing things from people and being cruel to horses are both bad; and then, if the situation arose, they might have to decide whether they think it's all right to steal a horse to keep it from being abused, or abuse a horse to prevent a theft, or any number of situations involving more or less theft in proportion to the amount of horse-abuse.)

One might be inclined to think that one doesn't have such a system, because 'virtue' and 'vice' are old-fashioned-sounding words, but one can make a virtue of self-interest, or a vice of uncoolness or wealth, for instance (and many people do).

I don't mean, of course, that in all stories the 'good guys' should win and the 'bad guys' lose, or that the 'good guys' should always be good and the 'bad guys' always bad, or even that the narrator should explicitly praise good things and censure bad things. We might speak, though, of a kind of moral understanding between the writer and the reader, so that the reader knows, for the most part, with which characters and actions to sympathise. Maybe it's possible to write a story completely without this kind of morals; but I don't know that we would want to try.

Now that I think on it, every story seems to have the second kind of morals as well; being human and living in the world, we can't help writing about things the way they often are. A story that didn't correspond to anything we generally know would make no sense. For instance, a saying goes 'haste makes waste'. Sometimes one can work too quickly and still not make a mistake; but usually, perfect results take time. Because this is generally true, a character who can always do everything in a slapdash fashion and never make a single mistake is unrealistic and boring (what some call a Mary Sue).

In other words, morals of this kind are concerned with normal patterns of cause and effect. A story can have causes with unusual effects, but if the effects are all unusual and random, the story will get incoherent quickly. To take the 'haste makes waste' example again, we might imagine a story in which benevolent spirits keep hasty actions from resulting in mistakes; but if the story also violates the principles that people rarely put in much more effort than necessary and that people care less about things when they take little effort to achieve them, then you'll just have a story of perfect people doing perfect things without trying and then enjoying the results. That doesn't sound like much of a story.

So, every story you write will have morals of both kinds (and if you manage to write one without them, I don't want to read it -- it sounds immensely boring). The morals are only a problem when they get out of balance with the story, either when the story doesn't support the morals or when the story does nothing but support the morals. If one has to end, 'And the moral of the story is...,' either the story hasn't been coherent enough to show what's important and true, or the story never mattered in the first place. If the moral can even be stated in one line tacked onto the end of a novel, one has not so much a novel as a fifty-thousand-word fable (an unpopular genre, I believe).

With a novel, the reader will probably not be able to sum up the morals in it, except perhaps at great length after much thought; but, one hopes, he or she will be able to feel a kind of affinity, recognising something right and true and satisfying, or else be able to grieve that the truth is hard and that, in this world, not all wrongs are made right.

I would go so far as to say that, in this sense, the morals in the story are what make it worth telling, because they carry the real feeling of the story -- not simplistic sentimental feelings of scary yucky and warm fuzzy, but the fierce, brilliant kaleidoscope of human desires and human will meeting on the one hand evil and emptiness and pain and on the other hand the good, the true, and the beautiful. Make your plot exciting, make your characters interesting, but unless I can feel some affinity for something inside the story, it's just a bunch of people running around doing stuff. Stories stay with us because they move us.

This has turned into a long philosophical essay. I suspect I'm saying the same thing as everyone else who's said, 'Care about your story', or something like it. The goal is to have both a good story and a good moral (or purpose, theme, substance, or meaning, as others have called it), each growing from the other, so that neither could stand without the other. We're not just producing nice stuff for consumption; we're not just making people behave; we're human souls speaking to each other across time and space.

I don't mean that we should always write dark and solemn things; it may feel far deeper to write unsettling, 'gritty' dystopia than to make the reader laugh, but if one can sometimes make one's reader laugh and feel not just amused but truly happy, one may have done something more important. Unfortunately, there's no magic formula; and, worse yet, what moves one person deeply may have little effect on another. (Some people -- perish the thought! -- open the Iliad and fall asleep.) But we're writers, so we keep trying.

No comments:

Post a Comment