Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 3: Upon What Authority?

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve looked at morality in fantasy writing and world building. This week I’m going to look at what kinds of things a moral framework or viewpoint could be based upon, what people may experience as the root of their morality. In fantasy, as in the real world, there can be many sources of moral authority, and here I’ll pick out a few that may be useful to consider.

Gods and religion is probably the first port of call as an origin for a character’s moral alignment (and no, I’m not going into the D&D model!). Morality as given to mortals, handed down by the divine. The god or gods she believes in, their teachings and their goals become part of the character’s make up, whether faithful, doubting, or rebellious. The moral structure of that religion is something taken for granted by the possessor of those beliefs often until they are challenged. This is equally true of characters who doubt or are rebellious – their problems with the orthodoxy define them, so anything that challenges their doubt or rebellion is problematic for them, if it has become a key part of their identity.

This of course means that the morality can be as diverse as the god who handed down their strictures. A world (or even area of a world) with a single god, but multiple religions or sects who all worship it, can be riddled with personal and social conflicts as the different sects all promote their version of belief in their god as the best and truest way. Differences, rather than commonalities, are highlighted and become divisive. Our own history is littered with examples of this.

In a pantheon, where gods can act as a large and sometimes unruly family, some people may believe more strongly in one god or another, which could easily cause conflict between characters, serious or light-hearted, (swords drawn versus banter over beers) depending on the relationships involved. Stories of the gods may emphasize punishment for disobedience or reward for faith, depending on the god, and the moral lesson to be imparted, all of which is at the discretion of the author. Greek myth is full of warnings, and betrays a worldview that considers gods as capricious and untrustworthy amongst themselves, and more so to any mortals who come into contact with them. Yet still they were venerated, prayed to, and worshipped for thousands of years, as taken together the stories of the gods provided meaning in every aspect of Greek life, from birth to death. Each god had its place and time of prominence, and so the religion, and the morality it helped to reinforce, persisted for millennia. A fantasy world with this kind of background worked in seamlessly (and there is the trick!) will have more depth, and its characters’ actions more significance, I think.

Of course, there can be competing pantheons present in the world – Greek and Egyptian pantheons co-existed (and presumably competed) for thousands of years in their respective (and sometimes overlapping) areas of influence. The possibilities for how that could affect characters in fantasy are almost limitless, but do not always have to be drivers of the top level conflict in the story, more just part of who the characters are, to make them that little bit more real, the world that little bit more lived in.

Sacred scrolls or writings can also be a source of moral authority. Sometimes divinely inspired, but not necessarily so, which is why I count this as a separate category. Ancient knowledge and wisdom of uncertain provenance (perhaps people, perhaps gods, or other non-humans) could easily shape a society and individuals within it, as the message becomes more important than the origin. Again, this gives the fantasy writer huge leeway in what he or she might want to do with the foundation of people’s beliefs, and can be used to serve the story very powerfully.

Another source could be the lessons of great teachers, handed down through generations. Imagine Buddha or Confucius in a fantasy setting. Of course you could imagine individuals possessed of less admirable qualities who had a lasting effect on their adherents! In fantasy this can also be expanded to the lives and acts of legendary heroes, whose decisions and deeds have been held up to people for centuries as a set of ideals, often as defenders of their nation or faith. The author has huge scope to tailor those heroic acts, (or maybe less than heroic) and the lessons drawn from them, to his or her own purpose.

Moral authority derived from ancestors, or founding myths. Many of our cultures have venerated their ancestors, and through that veneration, have adhered to the ‘traditional’ morality of that people and place. The Romans had their foundational myths, and many aspects of the ‘traditional’ Roman character were ascribed to those origin stories: later eras bewailing the increasing decadence of Rome often tried to hearken back to the traditional values of the founding, and of the Republic after the banishment of the last king: a seminal historical event that was made a part of the national character. As you can imagine, that was just one influence on the Roman moral framework as they too had their pantheon of gods to venerate. Immediately there could be a conflict within characters in such a position – what to do when the values of the ancestral ideal clash with the demands of gods who those same ancestors worshipped? How to square a bloody history of pride and conquest with the present need for peace?

Finally, and this list I’ve come up with is far from exhaustive, simple received wisdom. Morality not derived from anything in particular, but based on what has always been in that local area, passed down through generations as the way of life best suited to survival in that environment, not explicitly tied to gods, scriptures, teachers, heroes, ancestors or national myths. I think this is the quite common default in fantasy writing, as it allows general virtues to be espoused (often oddly modern ones) without tying them to anything specific in the world, and avoids the messy overtones of religious conflict that can attach themselves to other sources of moral authority. I think even this approach, tied into folk lore and the land and passing seasons (nature as a basis for morality hasn’t been touched on!) could be made richer and more rewarding for reader and writer alike: creating characters who are steeped in that sense of themselves as part of a tradition and a way of living, either rebelling against it, or acting to defend it.

To finish for this week, I hope from this brief discussion and examples that you can see ways to incorporate morality into your world and characters in a way that could be beneficial to your story. Story first, every time! In my own writing, I am aware of what moral backgrounds influence my characters, but I try not to ram it down the readers’ throats. In future, as wider stories unfold, the differences in the moral foundations of some characters may well cause friction, and when that happens, I hope the readers will not be surprised, as the characters’ viewpoints and backgrounds will have been built up gently over time. In that way, I’m trying to make the disagreements real, not simply grafted in at a later date in order to serve a plot point. I’ll leave it to the readers to decide if I was successful or not!

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2 thoughts on “Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 3: Upon What Authority?

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

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

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