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.