Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 1

Today I had the pleasure of talking with Jesper Schmidt about morality in fantasy world building, one part in an extended series of  discussions on this topic that are well worth watching. He has a great YouTube channel dedicated to all things fantasy writing related – check it out here! He also helps to run a very welcoming and friendly group on FB for fantasy authors, so if you need support and advice, drop in here.

You’ll be able watch our chat in a few weeks (Feb 26th is the likely date, I will let you know when it is finalized), but let’s break the ice on this subject now!

I think that when we consider the word morality, most of us consider the ideas of good and bad, closely followed by right and wrong. These words are tied to the ideas of actions and behaviours that could be considered as good or bad, right or wrong. If you are asked, “What is the moral choice here?” you are likely to assume the question is looking for the answer that fulfills a positive outcome, something ‘good’ or ‘right’.

In fantasy the option exists to create moralities that do not seek solely for that type of positive outcome. Further, many versions of ‘good’ or ‘right’ can exist, and can be in conflict with each other. Morality in Fantasy is often assumed: that there is one good side against the monolithic evil. The moral positions are taken for granted.

This need not be the case, and one of the strengths of fantasy writing can be an exploration of wildly different world views, and how those different world views might play out.

My feeling is that when it comes to creating fantasy worlds, the morality of a character’s time and place is an often neglected aspect of their experience. The society they grew up in, the taboos they have internalized, the rules they take for granted and obey all have a huge impact on them, as they do on us. So why would it not have an equally pervasive effect on our characters, and be played out in their actions and choices?

I only ask that question because all too often in fantasy literature we have this jarring experience of looking into a quasi-medieval world, but finding everyone acting on and being judged by late 20th, early 21st century Western standards, without any grounding for why the protagonists have values so closely allied to those dominant at the time of the novel’s writing. It is assumed that what is ‘right’ here and now in the world of the author should also be ‘right’ in the world of the fiction, without any explanation, because we assume our morality, our social norms, are correct, and so they are imported into the fiction without a pause for reflection, to consider if those values match the world into which they are being projected.

But morality is fluid. It changes through time, even in one locale. I think we’ve all heard of Victorian morals, and I doubt most of you reading this would imagine that you share them. That is only 150 years ago, and they were a widespread norm in Western Europe and parts of the USA in their time. Time and culture moved on, and that morality shifted, because I believe that morality is something of a social agreement – the rules by which a society agrees to live and govern itself, sometimes embodied in law, most definitely enshrined in custom and habit. Every generation seems to introduce its own wrinkle though, and so it evolves on, even as old, or even ancient standards or core beliefs can be held up to each generation as an ideal to be striven toward.

In fantasy writing the opportunity exists to pit different moral expectations against each other, or to show a normal that seems alien to us in our 21st century experience. To make readers wonder if they would respect such strange taboos, or find it normal to keep grandmother’s skull on the mantel. To give readers not only the chance to see dragons, but experience a different world down even to the daily expectations of life, and interactions with neighbours and friends. I think part of the desire for fantasy literature is the wish to visit strange lands, and I think that seeing and experiencing the different cultures that inhabit those lands is equally important, and something forgotten at times in the fantasy of my 80s youth. Now I think readers are ready to dive right in and be surprised by the worlds they enter, and perhaps shocked (or at least challenged) by what they find, but that is okay, because they know they will return home at the end of the story, having experienced something truly new. Fantasy can be travel of the mind, if the road goes far enough.

Next week I’ll look in more detail at what it means to construct an alternate foundation for morality (Order vs Chaos, Duty vs Rebellion, Family vs Outsider, The defeat of earthly desires vs. the pursuit of pleasure), and what cultural artifacts that morality could be based around. Morality governs both society at a macro level: rules of government and laws, and the micro: acceptable behavior amongst your peers, what the individual conscience allows and forbids. For fantasy writers who are considering the effects of morality on their worlds and characters I remind them of this – we all learned our first lessons at Momma’s ankles – what to do and not to do, what was allowed and forbidden. In constructing an alternate fantastical morality it seems wise to me to consider how mothers would teach their children to respect those rules, and what tales and sayings would exist to reinforce those mores. (In my novel I used fragments of songs and sayings to inform those ideas in ways I hope was not intrusive, plus the simple attitude of the characters when facing problems.) Visit Victorian tales and children’s stories and prepare to be amazed at what was considered normal only 150 years ago. The alien is closer than we imagine.

15 thoughts on “Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 1

  1. You mention the Victorian period which opens up a whole other can of professed/proscribed morals versus what people actually do. I also think part of the reason why morality in fantasy (an entertainment in general) usually aligns with modern sensibilities is because that is what the audience expects. You can’t write a fantasy story about warriors and war today without a good cast of women characters and even women warriors, despite the honest history of war being mostly a man’s concern in the past, due not to the abilities of women but the contemporary sensibilities. It is why both film trilogies based on Tolkien works added female characters. Works are expected to meet our modern expectations. I think there is only so much flexibility there. One of my favorite twists on morality was in the Star Wars Expanded Universe and video games (SW is just space fantasy), where there was a real attempt to show an honest difference between he philosophies of the jedi and sith, beyond just blanket good and evil. Thus, the jedi view became focused on compassion and collective support, whereas the sith view was one of hierarchy and order. Both had compelling parts to their arguments, and each was also flawed.

    1. I used the Victorian period precisely to set up the idea later of a Known ideal versus the Actual practice as a dramatic device for chatacters to experience, and drive a story. Even some Victorians knew they were hypocrits, but were loath to admit it. Jekyll and Hyde is a physical embodiment of that Victorian conflict between appearance and desire, appetite and decorum. Set in my hometown, as it happens.

      The Star Wars EU revelation was that Jedi and Sith could have a purpose together, which made the rule of 2 silly, so was retconned. I believe a version of the Thrawn series would have been amazing as a sequel to Return of the Jedi. And it made sense.

      The Tolkien issue – the man went through WW1. He did not see or imagine women fighting on those front lines. Why, or how could he after what he had been through? His use of Galadriel and Eowyn in the third age of Middle earth is way ahead of his time, and in keeping with the myths of his deep knowledge. He put Eowyn out there because she, and the Eddas demanded it.

      Thanks again for your insight. If you have any welsh in your ancestry be happy your boys thrashed my lads 34-7 this past weekend.

      1. I know I am a bit of a mutt when it comes to my heritage–German and French Canadian I imagine are the biggest, but also Scottish, English, Finnish, maybe Polish, and others I’m sure. Not Welsh, though, Not that I know of at least. Looking forward to the later discussion which I seem to have spoiled. 😛

      2. Not spoiled! I’ll bull on through somehow! (there is so much to talk about with regards to Morality, the field is virtually endless!) But for you with a name like Williams in the UK it would be assumed that somewhere in there you were a child of the valleys. Great rugby and snooker players from Wales have been named Williams – so maybe you need to check your history! LOL!

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