When was the last time you read about a character that you really liked? Not just because he/she was cool, but because he/she was a good person? As I read for my ethics classes something that I’m finding is that western philosophy (especially for the last 100 years) has largely ignored the idea of moral development or character development. Debates largely focus on which system to use in making extreme moral decision, but less on how to be a good person in general. However, I can think of plenty of fiction author’s who’ve tackled the issue of how to be a good person, or how to go from being a bad person to being a good person: Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, and Lars Walker just to name a few. In fact, one of the first rules that I emphasize in developing characters for a story or a novel is 1) figure out who they’ll be at the beginning of the book, 2) figure out who they’ll be at the end of the book, and 3) figure out how to get from 1 to 2. This concept of character development has a strong following in the fiction world, and you can identify it in many different characters, regardless of whether their development is good bad or ugly. So, Neal and I have written a fair amount about how our fiction needs to be informed by a depth of philosophical and theological thought. However, in this instance I think that western philosophy and theology have something to learn from fiction.

That being said, as authors we also need to be aware of our place in the world. Fiction does have a profound effect on the way that people think. Some of the books that have been significantly and thoroughly shaping in my own life have been works of fiction (Dante’s Inferno, Walker’s Year of the Warrior, Herbert’s Dune, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Erikson’s Midnight Tides, etc). That means that fiction’s current corner on the moral development market (something that I will do all in my power to change) becomes even more important, and it’s something that I see some, but not a lot, of modern author’s taking seriously. For instance, I compare the development in Glen Cook’s character Marron Shed and the development in Jim Butcher’s character Harry Dresden, and I see a significant difference. I see a difference not only in the quality of the writing, but also in 1) the quality of the development (Shed develops in one novel as much as Dresden does in seven) and 2) in the type of the development. Cook presents one of the strongest concepts of personal redemption that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and I think that this is worthy of note. Erikson does something similar with Karsa Orlong (though he takes longer to do it).

I honestly think that this could be a great thesis topic (for someone else :P… Sam, Selanya, you know anyone?), but honestly my purpose right now is really just to call attention to it as an issue. The fact that we can present moral education through fiction doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that every work of fiction should also be seen as a work of moral education. Honestly, I think that would be a significantly bad thing (what would happen to Conan…?). However, as fiction authors we also have a responsibility to consider what messages and concepts we’re presenting in our fiction, and to be responsible with them. We need to understand that people do listen to us, and that what we write does impact the lives of others. Further, we need to understand that what we write can actually lead people to become better people. This doesn’t mean that it will, but the fact that it can is important in and of itself. Consider who you want your readers to be, and consider whether what you write is actually likely to lead them closer to or farther from that goal.


13 thoughts on “Moral Education In Fiction

  1. John Truby teaches moral argument in The Anatomy of Story which talks about giving your characters a physiological weakness and need as well as a moral weakness and need. This allows you to easily place a theme and inner-need on the character during the story, causing him to gradually change and building to a self-revelation at the stories climax. He also discusses the importance of the moral argument throughout the story, which is built up through four
    -corner position: where you give four or more of your characters opposing values and have it play out through your story, causing your protagonist to come to terms with his behavior. The climax decides who’s values rule out. Anyway, great post!

    1. Iashor, this reminds me of the themes in classic tragedy that develop situations in which virtue is pitted against virtue and good against good. Oedipus Rex or Antigone are both great examples of this.

      1. Exactly. I like the way this method allows allies to built conflict with one another during the confrontation part of the story (act two) while, at the same time, still remain allies. I think that the “attack by ally” sections of structure and plot help to ignite a spark in the protagonist to gradually change his belief system and make a stand for principal over self at the climax.

        1. Iashor, there is absolutely a place for good vs good, and good vs. great in fiction. Honestly, I think that its an absolutely necessary part of fiction. However, I also think that we need to have good vs evil, evil vs evil, and bad vs worse in fiction as well. Probably not in the same story (that would be… complicated). However, some of my favorite characters are the ones who, over the course of the story, go from being truly horrible people to strong characters that 1) I like, and 2) I admire.

          1. That’s a great point. I think that the other good characters help to highlight the protagonists character flaws and help him gradually realize them. Allowing him to see a way to beat the antagonist in the end and turn into a better person which can be shown in the resolution. Awesome post today, man.

  2. Great post, thank you! I think you’re absolutely right in that writer of fiction have a duty to their readers to teach them something of the world and, if possible, make them better agents in it.

    If you’re interested in reading more philosophy on the nature of moral character and its development, there has been a focus in recent years in something called virtue ethics. It’s essentially a revival of the Aristotelian idea that morally good actions aren’t defined by their adherence to a set of rules (deontology) or their consequences (consequentialism, e.g. utilitarianism) but rather on whether they’re the kind of actions a good person would perform.

    There’s an excellent article on virtue ethics online at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/) and also an excellent collection of recent articles on diferent aspects of virtue ethics edited by Crisp and Slote. Those are both worth reading and have proved inspirational to me and my fiction at least.

    1. Nina, actually my focus in the degree I’m in is on comparing Classical Virtue Ethics, the modern Christian Virtue Ethics, and Confucianism (which some of the top Confucian scholars such as Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden have argued is a form of virtue ethic). I’ve been reading mostly Confucianism and Classical this semester. Next semester I’ll be reading Stanley Hauerwas, Chris Wright, N.T. Wright, Jean Porter, and Aquinas, along with Aristotle, Plato, Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi.

      1. Nerds. Just kidding. I’ve taken a couple of classes on psychology and character development, and I think that you guys have a great grasp on developing characters. I totally agree with finding the moral argument in character development, and I also agree that it can’t be done in every character in every story. The thing I like about four-corner opposition, is that it gives multiple characters a chance to have a weekends, need, and a self revelation. It gives the story multiple dimensions. I agree with your evaluation on Harry Dressden, but the thing that bothers me the most with that character is that the writer gave him a ghost, his dead parents, but does nothing with it to add character development–in the first three books that I’ve read, anyway.

        1. Iashor, I agree. I read up through about book 7 because people kept telling me that he did start developing later in the series. There is some character development, but overall it’s very weak. I think that Butcher gave the character a lot to work with, but then just didn’t really do much with all of that material. It makes me really sad overall.
          I also agree that every character in a novel doesn’t necessarily need to be developed. Sometimes Guard Number 2 can just be Guard Number 2. However, I think that major characters should all see some kind of moral development (good, bad, or ugly). I am actually find which antithetical moral development in which a character goes from good to bad, or from bad to worse. However, I think that it needs to 1) fit the story, 2) fit the character, and 3) have a clear and discernible purpose (for instance, a warning, an example of true evil, a contrast against the development of another character).
          I really dislike it when a character simply becomes evil for the sake of becoming evil because evil is cool.

          1. That first Dresden book was my favorite. I agree with your thoughts in evil antagonist. No one is completely bad or good, and most antagonists believe they’re in the right don the point of view of their existence. Once again, super great and cool topic; ’twas right up my alley. Any good reading suggestions along the lines of a protagonist with a clever, witty personality like Harry Dresden?

      2. That sounds really cool! I work mainly in ancient ethics (and other ancient things) but have practically no knowledge of Confucianism. I’d be interested in learning something about it though, is there a good introduction you could recommend?

        1. Well, that depends, how much of an introduction do you want? Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy is a great to intro, but it’s about 900 pages long. Bryan Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy is shorter, but it’s a little technical. Philip J. Ivanhoe’s Ethics in the Confucian Tradition is shorter still, but focuses heavily on Mengzi and Wang Yangming rather than treating the tradition as a whole. However, any introductory text by Ivanhoe, Chan, David Nivison, Van Norden, Kwong-Loi Shun, or Angus Graham is likely to be good.

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