The Problem With Moral Ambiguity in Fiction
In a recent guest essay on Suvudu, my friend, Editor-Author James L. Sutter suggests that moral ambiguity in fantasy makes for richer, better books. He cites George R.R. Martin’s popular Song Of Ice and Fire as an example of such and sites J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings as an example of overly simplistic, less interesting fantasy. Considering that Tolkein is still the high standard and influencer of most of fantasy written today, I cannot agree with that entirely. But it’s complex. Sutter is not at all suggesting Tolkein’s work is not incredible and admirable. He just suggests Tolkein’s broad strokes of morality are dated and less appropriate for our time.
At one point, Sutter writes:
“It’s also boring. By the time most of us are old enough to read, we’ve mastered the concept of good guys versus bad guys. It doesn’t mean we don’t still enjoy watching it, but taking such distinctions as a given removes a valuable part of the storytelling equation. If you know the good guys…are going to win, there’s no real tension.”
In a world where nihilism seems to rule the day, where people question a government’s motives for going to war or whether war is moral, where people complain about people judging others, about inqualities, etc., how can it be wrong to write stories which show a clearer sense of morality? What kind of future are we positing for our children? What kind of heroes are we offering them as role models? Don’t we have a responsibility to do better?
Sutter’s argument is that Martin’s characters are flawed and walk the lines between good and bad motivations and thus are more interesting and more like real people. Their world is a mess and so are they are thus they and their world are more like our own. But I think part of the problem with our world is that we are constantly told by entertainment media that our world is a mess and we can’t make it better and it’s hopeless to try. We are bombarded with images of violence, sex, language, etc. which of things, people, places being torn apart. We are shown these as motivated by impurities and negative motives more often than pure motives. And we are told that’s because human beings will always go that way by nature. While I do believe in the depravity of man, I also believe man has the capacity to grow and reach beyond natural tendencies and become so much better than that. And that’s what I want from my heroes. While I don’t want unflawed, perfect heroes—who can relate to those either—at the same time, I do want to know who should win; who is on the right side.
For me, heroes in stories, as I’ve said, are characters that show us who we wish we were and qualities we can strive for to be better people. People whose goals are less selfless and more servant oriented toward their fellow man and community and world. I do believe there’s hope and that we can make a difference. And I strongly believe future generations need and want to believe that too. Have we raised whole generations incapable of seeing that? It’s not for me to say, but while I enjoy the complexity of Martin’s storytelling and characters, in the end, the stories leave me empty and sad. His world is not a fun one to inhabit and not a place I’d ever want to visit. Most of his characters are not people I admire and wish I knew. Some have admirable qualities. Some do admirable things. But overall, I am left wondering why they get up every day. What motivates those people to keep going? I do see a few more admirable types in the series. Granted, I have only read two of five books so far, but the other types predominate. And while that may be a realistic portrayal of real people, I also believe another kind of people exist in the real world, too.
I believe there are people in this world who have purer motives, living to serve others and truly desiring to make themselves and their world better. Why do I believe it? Because those are the motives which have ruled my life. Am I perfect? No! In no way, am I. I have sinful desires and bad motives sometimes. I suffer temptations. I make mistakes. I hurt people. But my goals have never been to get rich, famous and live at the expense of anyone and everyone else. My goals have always been to find ways to help other people. In my stories, I want to entertain them, help them dream of a brighter world, and show them admirable characters they can look up to and strive to emulate. In my teaching and musical performing, I strive to encourage them the same ways and offer examples from history or demonstrate from my interactions with them that such things are possible. I know many others who do the same. My parents are like that, too.
All of us are flawed. There’s nothing wrong with showing that. In fact, I think it’s irresponsible not to. Cardboard characters, good guy or bad guy, are not compelling or interesting, because they are not real. But at the same time, as nihilism and moral ambiguity dominate people’s thinking, so they will dominate our world and shape how we live in it. If we teach people there is no right and wrong, we create a world of people who believe that. And I think most of us would have to agree that’s just not the case. There are things which are truly evil and things which are good. Going around murdering people is bad. Going around exterminating people for religious reasons or skin color, etc. is bad. Going around raping people is bad. Does anyone really disagree with that or want to live in a world full of people who do? These are just examples. There are many others.
Books are powerful. Fantasy is powerful. I think books are tools and fantasy a medium filled with rich possibilities. And I think there’s a responsibility authors have to think about how they present their worlds and what the messages readers take out of them will be. And I think all books teach us things. The best books teach us both good and bad so we walk away changed but still encouraged that we can become and do better. That’s the problem, for me, with suggesting moral ambiguity in fiction is a better way to write. For people with a different worldview, perhaps, but it’s not a world I want to inhabit or visit or a place I strive to be. And, in the end, I don’t think it’s a better place than our present world has been in the past and strives to be.
Moral ambiguity should not be the only path we follow in writing stories. It has its place like anything else as a tool of craft. Too much and it becomes a hazard and irresponsible practice, too little, it becomes the same. There is a place for morality in storytelling and showing a world where moral values still exist. We live in that world. We’re better off in that world. The future’s brighter in such a world. And so are we.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, an honorable mention on Barnes & Noble’s Best SF Releases of 2011, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. He resides in Ottawa, KS with two precocious dogs.