Some Thoughts About Morality And Storytelling

2013 Artwork Morality Storytelling Sketch

Don’t worry, this article isn’t calling for censorship and it isn’t a moralistic lecture either. I absolutely hate censorship and moralistic lectures. Instead, it’s an article about how writers should deal with the subject of whether writers should include their personal moral views in their stories.

First of all, everyone has their own personal moral code and opinions which they’ve arrived at either through a lot of thought and/or their own experiences. Even if you don’t think that you have a moral code, you probably still do. However, whether or not you should include these moral views in your stories is a slightly complicated subject. Yes, you are probably going to do this unintentionally to some extent or another, but this article will focus on whether or not you should do this intentionally.

Ok, what about controversial moral issues?

There are some stories which exist purely to put forward a particular moral opinon – TV Tropes even has a page about these types of stories and refers to them as “An Aesop” (which is, of course, a reference to Aesop’s Fables). I’d personally advise against writing these kinds of stories because they can often be fairly patronising and insulting to your readers’ intelligences.

If some of your readers completely agree with you, then they will probably enjoy your story and feel smug after reading it. But if people disagree or have more nuanced and complicated opinions, then it might put them off from reading your story. Yes, it might get them to think about the subject in a slightly different way, but if your story is very uncompromising and confrontational, then they’re probably just going to stop reading.

After all, when people read a story, they’re looking to be entertained. They aren’t looking to be lectured.

Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t include your own moral views in your stories, but you have to do this carefully and consciously in a way which doesn’t get in the way of the story which you are telling. Remember, telling an interesting and entertaining story is your first priority. If you want your story to make a moral point, be fairly subtle and make sure that, if the subject is pretty controversial, that you at least acknowledge the existence of other views about the subject in question. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, but at least come up with a reasoned argument against them rather than just ignoring them.

This is just my personal opinion, but if you are fairly conservative, then you should be a lot more careful and cautious about inserting your moral views into your stories than if you are more liberal. This is mainly because, with regard to some subjects (eg: LGBT rights, reproductive rights, the treatment of poorer people etc…) conservative moral views can have a very real and very damaging effect on the lives of other people. Of course, if you’re fairly conservative, then you probably won’t agree with me about this subject anyway….

Ok, this is starting to veer into politics. What about ordinary morality? You know, good and evil?

As for more “ordinary” types of morality, it is totally up to you how you handle this subject although it can have a serious effect on the tone and atmosphere of your story. If you write a story where the “good guys” are always paragons of virtue and the “bad guys” are completely evil, then this story might be fairly entertaining and fun to read – but it isn’t particularly realistic. Again, realism isn’t a intrinsically “good” or “bad” thing in storytelling, but it will affect the general tone and atmosphere of your story.

Likewise, stories where literally every small misdeed (regardless of who is responsible for it) is “punished” in some way or another can still be entertaining, but these stories can get fairly predictable (eg: your readers know that something bad will happen to one of your characters long before it actually does) if you are not careful.

The fact of the matter is that people are usually fairly morally ambiguous to some degree or another. Yes, some people might be more evil than good and vice versa, but everyone is a mixture of good and evil to some extent or another. Likewise, the universe can sometimes be an unjust place and bad things can happen to good people and vice versa. So, if you’re writing a more “realistic” story, then you should take this into account.

Whilst showing the villain getting their just desserts is a fairly satisfying way to end a story and it can work very well in “realistic” stories, it can often be a good idea to show the villains getting away with some lesser misdeeds or even to show the main characters getting away with various misdeeds in order to give your story a sense of realism. Likewise, it can be a good idea to show the occasional injustice happening to your villains or to your main characters. There aren’t really any “rules” about this subject, so use your own judgment.

Plus, if you’re writing a more “realistic” story, your villains can’t just be two-dimensional, “evil for the sake of evil” characters. You should show why they are doing the things that they are doing and, most importantly, why they think that they are doing the right thing. Their reasons will probably be fairly misguided, fanatical or vengeful but they should have at least a vaguely believeable reason for doing what they do. This doesn’t mean that you have to justify or excuse your villain’s actions, but your villains should have as much characterisation as your main characters do.


Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Some Thoughts About Morality And Storytelling

  1. […] Some Thoughts About Morality And Storytelling ( […]

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