29 June, 2012

Morality in Fiction

See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil?
Most writers at some point need to make the decision about the morals and standards they want to maintain in their writing. I'm not talking about the real-life side of things like plagarism and copyright infringement, but the writing itself. How much sex, violence and bad language are you willing to write into your work?

I was thinking about this the other day when somebody at church asked if I wrote Christian novels. I don't. I've always assumed that it's a cheesy and bland genre, dominated by the wives of American pastors. I'm wrong, apparently, and I'm glad to hear it. But it got me thinking. Some people don't like to read books if the content includes things they consider immoral (a definition that we would all assign to different things I'm sure!). That's fair enough, of course - we all choose books and films according to our own personal taste anyway - morality is just part of that. But as a writer I find it hard. My level of tolerance towards the stronger elements of literature is lower in myself, than in the authors I read.

Few novels I consider great contain much that I also consider immoral, but I don't get particularly offended at swearing, sex or violence in books. An excess of any of them is rarely necessary and I wouldn't choose to read a book based on violence or erotic fiction, but as a realistic part of an interesting plot - fine. But I'm less happy to include them in my own writing. Partly this is artistic, but partly it's discomfort. Until my characters have come to life and are doing their own thing, it still feels "wrong" to use language that I wouldn't use myself - particularly when it comes to blasphemy, which litters "normal" conversation now.

But fiction is fiction, right? Crime writers don't have to condone murder. My parents have a wooden sign in their house saying, "The opinions expressed by the husband in this household are not necessarily those of the management." Well, I feel like I need to put a similar one at the start of my work, saying, "The opinions expressed by the characters in this book are not necessarily those of the author". Some people don't seem to get that.

I wonder though, whether I should know where my cut-off point is. Of course I want my writing to be realistic, but is that an excuse? I may be writing a scene that requires foul language to be "real", but it was my choice to write that scene in the first place. I tell people that I don't write erotica - but that's only the extreme end of sex in literature. What about everything up to that point (for example)?

Whatever your personal standards or beliefs, do you avoid certain things when choosing your reading material? If you're a writer - do you have double standards between other authors and your own work? Have you already decided how far you are willing to go in your writing?

[Some good has come out of this common dilemma. Several years ago a handsome man wrote a post on our church blog asking for people's opinions on this sort of thing. I replied saying that I was writing something - the first thing I ever wrote, actually - that I was worried might be blasphemous. He offered to take a look and give an opinion... and we've been married for three and a half years now. If you end up getting married as a result of this blog post, I expect cake.]

17 comments:

  1. I'd also be glad to hear of anyone who has a) read and enjoyed a Christian novel, or b) ever read a well-written sex scene.

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    1. For a moment I was going to say that I don't read Christian fiction. But wait, I have read an amazing one! The Shack! Ever read that? AMAZING! I would recommend that the whole world should read that book.

      PS: I'm a bit prudish so any sex scenes make feel awkward. Feels like I'm a peeping Tom or something. :D

      Morals are tricky. If it's vital for the characters and the story, then the (any) scene should be included. Characters have to be real, after all. I don't like unnecessary scenes.

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  2. One of my team mates lent me this book http://www.amazon.com/One-Tuesday-Morning-September-Series/dp/0310247527 and its sequel while in Uganda. I did enjoy them, and while they were Christian in the sense that one of the main characters has a strong faith I enjoyed the book in the same way I would any other - I found the characters engaging and wanted to find out how the story ended. I think Christian novels do have the potential to be cheesy, but if the backing to the story is as good as in any other book then the potential to be good is also strong. I'm not saying that this particular work of fiction is a masterpiece - but I did find it engaging.

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    1. I think that's it, isn't it? If you set out to write a book that's "Christian", it's going to be weak. If you set out to write the best books you can, but with the proviso that your characters have faith and you aren't going to put anything "Immoral" into it, then there's no reason why it can't be good!

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  3. Hi Chloe, you've raised a very interesting and thorny topic. Sorry, this might be a long response!

    Even the term 'Christian' can mean different things to different Christians - a read through Leviticus shows you how far things have changed. I think there are several factors at work here - writing our own truth, writing what is true for the characters, and writing what is true (or at least expected) for the genre. I'm written four novels (agents and publishers please note!) that have yet to be published. The first, which I'm self-publishing this year, deals with reincarnation, mystical fantasy and a cosmology that allows for creatures that exist on a different plane of reality. But within that context, there is a morality at work.

    For the two thrillers, especially the first one, there are sex scenes that I would not have written had they not evolved from the characters and story lines, and the genre. Some ideas developed from a novel writing summer school, where we were told to go home and write a sex scene. If I didn't feel it added something to the novel, I'd take them out (and still might). There's violence too, or at least the recollection of violence. And what I consider to be justice.

    The last novel, which draws upon personal experience, treats sex totally differently, in that it's mentioned but not in any great detail. Perhaps it's no surprise that book four is a comedy drama.

    So I guess what I'm saying is that it depends what you're writing, why you're writing it, what genre it is and who you're writing it for. I think religious or spiritual themes can be woven into pretty much any genre, and can be all the better for being subtle. But then, I've never tried writing a Christian novel - yet!

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    1. Ah, a read through Leviticus - always my favourite Friday afternoon wind-down activity!

      I am convinced that everything needs to be driven by characters or it doesn't work. I used to try to make my characters do things, but it didn't work! In my WIP two characters have sex and I didn't decide whether they would or not, until they did. (But, I didn't write the scene, I did the coy 'before and after' scenes instead!)

      My novel is definitely not Christian, but the MC is trying to paint a picture of God, so I hope I've done some subtle weaving. I guess like every aspect of being human - life wouldn't be life without it (whether you're a religious fanatic or hardcore atheist). Can't wait for you book to come out!

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  4. Where my characters would be immoral I let them, but I don't feel the need to write it in excruciating detail.

    (If I get married as result of this you're invited to the wedding)

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    1. Win! Any takers, anyone? I LOVE wedding cake!

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  5. Back to your original question about double standards ~ I think when you read a book you assume that the author has done all his soul-searching before writing, so you don't get a guilt feeling about reading what he's put, however steamy/unpalatable it is. You can tolerate more because you're not responsible for it.
    In your own writings the responsibility is yours, and there may be some aspects of life you can't tackle or justify to yourself. I think these anomalies smooth out as you develop your own style, and find a way of expressing what you need to express in a way you can accept. Ceve

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  6. A very thought-provoking topic, because I would happily describe a cold-blooded murder but shy away from describing hot-blooded sex! I suppose the difference is likely to be that the murder would almost certainly be crucial to the story whereas the sex is more likely to be incidental. Additionally, a murder in most people's lives is an extraordinary event and so warrants being described, whereas sex is just sex and as much a part of life as using the toilet - which we don't feel the need to describe in fiction. (At least not in the sort of books I tend to read.)

    PS If I get married as the result of this comment I expect you to appear as a character witness at the ensuing bigamy trial.

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    1. I would LOVE the opportunity to appear as a character witness for you. Oh, the possibilities...

      It hadn't occurred to me to think of murder as an immoral act in books! That's funny. Murder in literature wouldn't give me a second-thought. I guess, it's like you said - murder is extraordinary and I suppose there's no question of it being bad either. Like every other aspect of writing, things need to be there for a reason other than just because the author fancied trying their hand at writing a sex scene or wanted to prove they could shock with foul language.

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  7. Er, I was rather thinking in terms of a DEFENCE witness...

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  8. It's a very valid topic to raise, and I'm glad you have. I would say I'm similar to you in that I'm not too bothered when I encounter sex and violence in a book I read, but I am far more reluctant to write these unless necessary.
    Patrick Gale [Notes From an Exhibition] demonstrates how sex scenes can actually do a lot for character development. You can learn a lot about characters from them.
    Like you say, realism is the key. so long as it does fit with the character and the story.
    At the same time, I think a good set of morals in a book can be just as realistic and powerful; one of my friends is a big David Gemmell Fan; David Gemmell is a Christian. Art of my friend's journey to faith and Christianity was through the morals and values presented in his books. So it is certainly valuable to demonstrate good morals in our writing. I suppose it depends what the purpose of the writing is.
    Nari X

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    1. I think being both moral and immoral in writing is about subtlety. Nobody wants to be preached to, but nobody (well, hardly anyody) what's a move-by-move account of an explicit encounter. People get what you're trying to say without you spelling it out, right? I want to demonstrate good principles in my writing but not bore the pants off people! All a matter of balance...

      I'll look out for David Gemmell.

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  9. I think sex can be a powerful story-telling tool within literature, at least as much as violence. Without the graphicness of the sex scenes and the coarseness of language, Lady Chatterley's Lover would have had much of its impact neutered. Similarly, The French Lieutenant's Woman would not have been such a powerful tale of lust and desire without the sex scenes. The important distinction is what the use of sex hopes to achieve, as purely erotic fiction is almost without exception one-dimensional and boring. Many books and particularly films include sex and romance as part of a sub-plot as if just to tick off a box.

    For a masterful example of where sexual content is used to deepen the psychological understanding of a character, James Joyce in Ulysses uses a monologue which flows through the various sexual desires and exploits of one of his protagonists and ultimately flows into her current feelings towards her husband and her memories of the day he asked her to marry him, which forms the denouement of the novel. (Incidentally, in reference to billyblogger's early comment, this novel also describes the protagonist's visit to the lavatory).

    I personally do not shy away from using sex in my writing (I think writing about sex says more about every day experience than violence does, since I imagine more people have had sex than have ever gotten into a fist, knife or gun fight), but only as it is necessary to the plot.

    With regards to morality, I think writers have a duty to consider the moral impact of their work. For example, I try not to glamorise violence without consequences, as stories all too often show 'killing the bad guy' to be an acceptable way to resolve conflict, without showing the psychological or legal impact of doing so.

    I agree that people do not want to be preached at in writing, and my view is that literature should not offer moral answers, but rather raise moral questions or challenge prevailing ideas. To this end I think the use of immoral or amoral characters is effective, such as in Crime and Punishment, A Clockwork Orange, Heart of Darkness and Atlas Shrugged. However, I also think characters such as To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch demonstrate an admirably moral paragon in a book which isn't overly preachy.

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  10. Well, you just ruined the last section of Ulysees for me! (I'm about to read it, having waded through the first 17!) But I get what you mean. I kind of like the way Ulysses is about the very ordinaryness of life - lavatory breaks, lust and fantasies included. One of my favourite bits so far is when Leopold is fantasising about the things going on around him and because it's his fantasy everybody loves him and he does everything that is wonderful and noble - so true to how we imagine ourselves!

    I like the idea that writing should raise questions not give answers. Few people want to be told what to think - they want space to think for themselves.

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