Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 2: Beyond Good and Evil

Last week I chatted about the idea that morality in fantasy fiction is often either taken for granted, (painted in simple terms of big evil versus plucky underdog good) or oddly out of step. (Why would 20th and 21st century Western morals be the norm in a variety of quasi-medieval settings?)

I also mentioned that the possibility exists in fantasy to explore moralities based on something other than the good/evil axis. Right and wrong could be measured against something other than promoting weal or woe. This is the aspect of morality I’m going to look into this week.

For instance, imagine being brought up in a rigidly hierarchical society where maintaining social order is viewed as the highest good. Deviating from assigned roles, not accepting your place in society, would be a great sin. Sounds like many dystopian fantasies does it not? Where the plucky hero starts off as a rebel against the faceless conformity everyone else accepts. In this society law and order are king, and agents of government tasked with imprisoning or killing any who rebel against convention would not consider their murderous actions immoral, because the highest good is to follow the law and preserve the status quo. The reader might then ask why is the status quo so valuable to that society? I think if that question is answered convincingly you can put the reader into a position where, although they are inclined to support the rebel protagonist, they begin to understand and sympathize with her adversaries. Especially if the rebel’s actions threaten to destroy that society without providing a clear alternative, or at a great cost of life. Who then is acting more correctly? Our own moral positions are then involved: we as readers can’t really help but think in terms of our own moral compass, normally based around good and bad, and would start weighing outcomes on that basis, and perhaps find our loyalties shifting between protagonist and antagonist(s), depending on the information available. This is a richer experience, in my view, and one that I think will involve the reader more deeply, and make your book more memorable.

Or imagine a society where duty to family is the ideal. What happens to a protagonist torn between two familial obligations of equal strength? How can she satisfy society’s demands upon her? What other criteria can be used to break the tie, and should they be used, or would she be considered selfish to do so? She may love one side more strongly, but still feel obliged either to do nothing, or destroy herself in an attempt to reconcile the demands made upon her. She wouldn’t be deciding based on good or evil outcomes, but on what could satisfy the need to put duty to family most faithfully. This could lead to actions or omissions of action that we as readers could have a hard time sympathizing with, as our own feelings about family would come strongly into play. Another scenario would be how would a character who has been brought up to always prioritize family (and by extension, his extended family, and his nation, or race) over outsiders deal with his prejudice against outsiders when the only way to save his family would be to work with, ally, or even marry into an outsider family or culture? That would be an interesting dilemma to watch unfold, as the protagonist would be likely to make many decisions that might look strange to us, but make sense to him, and could easily result in a tragedy we as readers would be tearing our hair out at seeing unfold, as the character’s code would be incompatible in some ways with our own. We’d be shouting at him to get over his prejudices and save his family, even as he refuses to cross that line, precisely because of the lessons instilled in him at his mamma’s knee.

Of course, both the above examples are simplified. Indeed, they could be combined quite easily. Imagine an ancient Spartan who falls in love with a Helot, who then tries to convince him to free her people, which would destroy the Spartan way of life. In one fell swoop you have order versus chaos, conformity versus rebellion and family versus outsider moral axes all accessed at once. As I said last week, I think of morality as something of a social construct, with ancient roots but evolving through time, and is part of the agreements that keep a society cohesive and the individuals within it linked by common cultural bonds. In the real world multiple different moral or social pressures can exert themselves upon us at any given time. In fantasy we have the opportunity to be as complex, or as simplistic as we like as writers, depending on the goal we have in mind. To examine something in detail it is often beneficial to strip away complicating factors and keep the core conflict simple. There is a reason why monolithic good vs. evil tales resonate so strongly. But in order to reveal the fault lines in say an order versus chaos based morality, it might be necessary to not muddy the waters with too many other moral conflicts, in order to share the essential problems you want your reader to interact with as unambiguously as possible. Of course you may decide to layer multiple different conflicts over each other and have them all intersect in one poor character (like our love-struck Spartan, above) who has to deal with all these things happening at once! If you can do that effectively, greatness awaits!

Next week, I’ll look at where moral authority comes from in any given society, and how it becomes the received wisdom that underpins why people should believe in, and act upon, their version of right and wrong. Religion, spiritual teachers, sacred texts, ancient heroes or pivotal events, national origin myths could all be regarded as the source of moral authority, things to be admired and emulated, their examples passed on through the generations. And of course morality at some stage has to be differentiated from ethical systems that can be developed or taught later in life and that can come into conflict with the morality a person learns from childhood. The more I talk about this, the more there is, but I’m trying to keep it to bite sized chunks! And remember, I am not setting myself up as an authority here, just sharing opinions that could easily be wrong! See you next week, I hope!

3 thoughts on “Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 2: Beyond Good and Evil

  1. Pingback: Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 3: Upon What Authority? – Roderick T. Macdonald

  2. Pingback: Why I Write Fantasy: To Appear on YouTube talking about Morality in Fantasy World Building, Obviously – Roderick T. Macdonald

  3. Pingback: Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 4: A Clash of Codes – Roderick T. Macdonald

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