Do stories deliver morals, or is story itself—at its very core—a dramatization of morality? Is story in fact the human method for articulating and sustaining beliefs? After all, in The Storytelling Animal Jonathan Gottschall points out:
people are willing to imagine almost anything in a story: that wolves can blow down houses; that a man can become a vile cockroach in his sleep (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis); that donkeys can fly, speak and sing R&B songs (Shrek), that “a dead-but-living fatherless god-man [Jesus] has the super-powers to grant utopian immortality”; that a white whale might really be evil incarnate; that time travelers can visit the past, kill a butterfly, and lay the future waste (Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”).
I should say that people are willing to imagine almost anything. This flexibility does not extend to the moral realm. Shrewd thinkers going back as far as the philosopher David Hume have noted a tendency toward “imaginative resistance”: we won’t go along if someone tries to tell us that bad is good, and good is bad.
Gottschall goes on to observe that “Story runs on poetic justice, or at least on our hopes for it” and cites others who agree. As John Gardner puts it, fiction “is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.”
Since 1021 (The Tale of Genji), novelists have possessed a powerful opportunity, to use as weapon, tool, propaganda device, or source of social good. But has fiction remained a moral force, or does that notion seem antiquated as reading books printed on paper?
Probably both. People, including novel readers, are less susceptible to didactic preaching than they presumably were when Samuel Richardson rewarded chastity in Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) or Henry Fielding lauded lofty ideals (instead of promiscuity) in The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (1749). Today’s readers enjoy a spoonful of voice, plot, and originality to help the morality go down.
Yet in every genre, novel readers still crave moral questions. Will she overcome her snootiness in order to deserve the man she loves? Will squandering earth’s resources yield the fate of The Dead Planet? Will the self-important detectives ignore the lady who gobbles mysteries, collects stray cats, and is the only one who can solve the crime?
Consider the moral center of your own novel. Can you enrich it?
- Does your novel have a layer or texture beyond the entertainment component?
- Does the plot somehow illuminate human psychology or society?
- If the novel ends happily, did the protagonist change enough to deserve that?
- Do you ever resort to oversimplified solutions for resolving moral conflict?
- Do you polarize good versus evil, or reflect the gray area between them?
- Do you free readers to reach their own conclusions about your story?
- If you could leave your readers with just one thought when they finish your novel, what would that be? Does your plot convey that?
Tip: Memorable novels are equal parts fun and poetic justice.