On Moral Fiction

January 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is why you write. You have something to say. You feel the passion, the fire, the fury. Your work, your world, is inching up there on the ‘socially conscious’ scale. My one rule for you, or I could also say myself, is this: the story and the characters must always matter—or appear to the reader to matter—more than the moral idea.

Maybe we can’t all be Dickens, riling up public opinion about child labor, changing hearts and minds. But we can agitate readers. I use the word “agitate” because I like the fact that washing machines have an “agitator.” Shake things up. Pummel the fabric. Get the dirt out. Work.

At Necessary Fiction, January Writer-in-Residence Megan Mayhew Bergman writes on fiction’s responsibility to be moral without being moralizing.

I try to adhere to the rule that characters are less revealed by what they say than by the decisions they make, and those decisions are often ‘moral’ to the extent of guiding the character’s path to happiness, and weighing that happiness against the happiness of others.

This is why I’m not keen on stories that exist as little more than character sketches; where there is no pursuit and chance for fulfillment. What does the character want, and why do they want it? How much do they want it? And to what extent—and expense—will they go to attain it? The limitations of flash fiction are too often used as an excuse to avoid addressing these questions.

And yet you can have effectively egotistical, irresponsible, asshole characters. Rabbit Angstrom is my favorite by a mile. What he wants is a return to past exhilarations, the feeling of limitlessness as expressed by Pascal’s “motions of grace.” But to meet this desire means harming a lot of people. It is the motivation he finds to veer away from opportunities of redemption that keeps us reading.


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