Monday, September 20, 2010

Damn, now we gotta have morals?

By Steve Weddle

Before I get to complaining about whatever stupid crap some idiot on the internet said this week, you should be sure you've checked out what our own Jay Stringer has been up to at MatineeIdles. He talks and writes about movies. This week he writes about Maria Bello's Mummy movie. Yes, the nice woman Jay and Russel love in that delightful Mel Gibson movie.

Speaking of Russel, he's planning to panel at Bouchercon.

Also, seems we're about a week away from our own Joelle Charbonneau's SKATING AROUND THE LAW. Did you pre-order yours yet? Call your local bookstore to make sure they have it in-stock. Go ahead.

So this week's stupid thing said by a person on the internet was this (and I paraphrase): "The main character in your book should be moral."

Character. Morals. Characters with morals. OK. Let's go.

Bucket o' crap, right? Many years ago I sat in the office of my faculty advisor as he explained to me the difference between having character and being one. (One day I'm sure I'll find out what the hell he was going on about.) But this characters with character stuff? Uh, wha?

I think it works like this. The main character fights for 300 pages (or 180 if it's noir or Graham Greene. (Why are noir books so short? My guess is that the publishing houses did focus groups and found that anyone who could read such despair for longer was likely to eat a Glock soon (and not buy more books) or so sad as to be unemployed soon (and not buy more books.))) In case I lost count on the parentheticals, here are some extra parentheses. Take what you want and leave the rest. Like most folks do with The Bible.

So the character fights for 300 pages to get the MacGuffin. Then at the end he is in a burning building and has to either grab the MacGuffin or the one-legged orphan holding a blind puppy.

Or he's involved in something bad and turns on his partners when it counts. I think I saw this movie. They robbing an armored car. Or at least I saw the previews. And the guy has to make a decision. He sacrifices something he had valued at the beginning of the movie for something his new morals tell him is valuable now.

Like in the Maria Bello movie PAYBACK. Parker has his own "code," but whether that would be considered "moral," um, I'm thinking probably not. Of course, in the movie he's not called Parker; he's called "Adolf."

So what's all this crap about having moral characters? Doing the right thing?

Do we feel better about a character when she is doing the right thing? Do we want our heroes to be the people we aspire to be? What the hell does that even mean? What the hell is a hero?

If the main character kills a few bad guys along the way in order to save the world, that's fine. But it seems that the bad guys have to kill themselves most of the time. Like that scene in a billion movies in which our hero is fighting the bad guy and our hero has won. But he allows the bad guy to live. Because that's what good guys do. Then suddenly the bad guy isn't dead at all. No, he was faking, because that's what bad guys do. Then he gets up and dives at our hero. But our hero moves and the bad guy ends up falling on big pointy thing and dies. Phew. Dead bad guy and unsoiled good guy.

Do morals change from one book to another? Are morals relative to the story at hand? You know, is it wrong to snap the neck of a nun in a Robert Langdon book, but OK in the world of Cal Innes?

Does the character's "code" stand in for "morals"?

What does it mean to be a "moral character" anyway? Isn't it more important to be interesting?

In the world of fiction, is having "character" less important than being one?

16 comments:

Jen Forbus said...

Interesting questions! I don't have an answer but I think more than anything I look for characters with depth. Characters who have flaws but at the same time consistancy. It's o.k. for a character to act differently if there is some rationale, but not to go out of character for no apparent reason.

Beyond that I look for unique characters. It would be a boring world if all the characters lived by the same rules and codes and expectations. I enjoy characters like Joe Pike, Dexter, Win Lockwood, Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell.

However, if I can find nothing to like about a character (e.g., Tana French's crew in IN THE WOODS) then I don't end up caring about their fate or how the story plays out.

John McFetridge said...

I'm kind of the opposite of Jen, I don't like characters that are too "unique."

And yes, I think the main character does need to have some morals. I think the pendulum has swung pretty far and it wouldn't be a bad thing to move it back a bit.

These days I can look at the world and easily understand how people would have no faith in anything or anyone and not bother to consider morality when doing anything, so it becomes more interesting to dig into characters and find out why they might be concened about things like morality.

Even if their moality is screwed up.

Gerald So said...

I don't think anyone, real or fictional, can live by a man-made code (as opposed to genetic predisposition). All man-made codes get broken now and then, so why define them? I prefer to find out about a character as I read, by the way he reacts to what's thrown in his path. Characters/people can say (or codify) whatever they want. What they actually do when the chips are down defines them.

If a character is around for enough stories or books, his range of behavior gets defined anyway. No person will take any conceivable action anytime. A specific person is limited to a set of actions based on what he wants or values most in life. The trick for writers is to make each situation feel new so audiences can't be sure exactly what characters will do in response.

Dana King said...

I just read my first Richard Stark/Parker novel. (Yeah, I know, I know.) Parker is not amoral. He doesn't indiscriminately kill people. He's a thief, He steals things. He does what he needs to do to steal these things, and if someone if going to put him away, he'll do what he has to do to prevent that. Is that "moral?" Probably not. But he has standards, lines he won't cross. It's like creating a world in science fiction. You can make anything you want happen, so long as it's been properly presented and is consistent. You can't let pigs fly and not horses unless you explain why. I hate movies and books where a character is an SOB throughout until he gives up his life to save a cat because a kid handed him a flower. I may not like the SOB anyway, but if he's going to be a SOB, make him believable SOB

Chuck said...

Cool post.

I think there exists some wires crossing between "having morals" and "performing moral actions."

Characters should have morals.

But they don't need to *be* moral.

A character without any sense of why he's doing what he's doing, without any ethical compass to point him right *or* wrong, threatens to be dull.

But that's separate from having him act like an upstanding, righteous dude.

Rules, codes, ethics, ways of doing things, lines in the sand. These are all good things for characters. And, in many stories, it's also good for characters to cross these things, or to break them entirely.

Or something.

Need more coffee.

-- c.

John McFetridge said...

Hey cool, like a discussion.

I think we need to be clear in the difference between immoral and illegal.

Tony Soprano is a moral guy who committed a lot of crimes because there was (is) a big demand for the goods and services he provided. He was often conflicted as to why he was the bad guy. Without that inner conflict, without looking at the bigger picture he's just Paulie and not much of a main character (though a great supporting character).

Like Dana says, if Parker just indiscriminately kills people while stealing candy from orphan babies, he's not going to carry many stories.

Because laws change and what's legal isn't consistent (oh, now booze is illegal, now it isn't, now Deep Throat is banned, now we're going to see it on a date) we can't rely on laws to provide us with morality.

So clearly that's where fiction comes in ;)

Chuck said...

Like what John says.

Also good to remember: characters rarely think of themselves as the bad guy. Most see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. They *believe* themselves moral. They are defined by some code, as disturbed and strange as it may be.

-- c.

Malachi Stone said...

In my opinion the greatest living crime writer is Elmore Leonard. He’s eighty-five, has written something like sixty novels and just came out with another book, DJIBOUTI. Yet in every interview of Leonard I’ve ever seen he is a soft-spoken and unassuming man who lets his books convey his characters without becoming one himself. I think it’s well to mark Leonard’s example and meditate on his life and work as a paradigm for a successful career in crime writing.
Number one, his books are cathartic in the Aristotelian sense of the term. In FIFTY-TWO PICKUP the protagonist has what he thinks will be a harmless extramarital affair, but which opens the door for murderous thugs to invade his formerly quiet life and bust out his successful business. The reader vicariously experiences what it might be like to cheat on his own wife, as in a dream. And, like a dream, the nightmare qualities begin to suggest themselves. I believe two things: all good writing originates in the subconscious mind, and in the best writing, both dream and nightmare aspects of the story infiltrate into the reader’s subconscious. If that’s a moral lesson, it’s one that is more likely to stick with us than a Sunday morning sermonette. No man who reads FIFTY-TWO PICKUP will soon cheat on his wife, any more than a man will who has recently viewed FATAL ATTRACTION.
Number two, Leonard never blurs the line between his characters and himself. By design, he is absent from the page as an author. Le dialogue est tout in every Leonard novel, with no moralizing, express or implied. The polar opposite of this kind of writing is of course the comically intrusive and sermonizing narrator in such classic English novels as Samuel Butler’s THE WAY OF ALL FLESH and Laurence Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY. (Too pedantic? Sue me, I’m on a roll.)
Number three, Leonard’s ear is perfect: his characters talk in a disjointed, offhand way. You don’t always get it all; it’s like a conversation overheard in a bar. It’s like real life, the kind of real life most of us don’t want to get too close to other than in reading fiction. The fact we fear getting too close doesn’t make us cowards; it makes us wise. We learn things from Leonard’s books, and at a deep discount from what learning these same lessons from real life might cost us. Leonard often gives no redeeming qualities to his most interesting characters other than as necessary to personalize them as villains.
Hope this helps. Whoops, time for my pill.

Malachi Stone said...

In my opinion the greatest living crime writer is Elmore Leonard. He’s eighty-five, has written something like sixty novels and just came out with another book, DJIBOUTI. Yet in every interview of Leonard I’ve ever seen he is a soft-spoken and unassuming man who lets his books convey his characters without becoming one himself. I think it’s well to mark Leonard’s example and meditate on his life and work as a paradigm for a successful career in crime writing.
Number one, his books are cathartic in the Aristotelian sense of the term. In FIFTY-TWO PICKUP the protagonist has what he thinks will be a harmless extramarital affair, but which opens the door for murderous thugs to invade his formerly quiet life and bust out his successful business. The reader vicariously experiences what it might be like to cheat on his own wife, as in a dream. And, like a dream, the nightmare qualities begin to suggest themselves. I believe two things: all good writing originates in the subconscious mind, and in the best writing, both dream and nightmare aspects of the story infiltrate into the reader’s subconscious. If that’s a moral lesson, it’s one that is more likely to stick with us than a Sunday morning sermonette. No man who reads FIFTY-TWO PICKUP will soon cheat on his wife, any more than a man will who has recently viewed FATAL ATTRACTION.
Number two, Leonard never blurs the line between his characters and himself. By design, he is absent from the page as an author. Le dialogue est tout in every Leonard novel, with no moralizing, express or implied. The polar opposite of this kind of writing is of course the comically intrusive and sermonizing narrator in such classic English novels as Samuel Butler’s THE WAY OF ALL FLESH and Laurence Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY. (Too pedantic? Sue me, I’m on a roll.)
Number three, Leonard’s ear is perfect: his characters talk in a disjointed, offhand way. You don’t always get it all; it’s like a conversation overheard in a bar. It’s like real life, the kind of real life most of us don’t want to get too close to other than in reading fiction. The fact we fear getting too close doesn’t make us cowards; it makes us wise. We learn things from Leonard’s books, and at a deep discount from what learning these same lessons from real life might cost us. Leonard often gives no redeeming qualities to his most interesting characters other than as necessary to personalize them as villains.
Hope this helps. Whoops, time for my pill.

Malachi Stone said...

Sorry about the duplicate posting. Blame it on my MPD and feel free to delete one or the other. I prefer the first one, but use your own judgment.

Lamar Henderson said...

It might be useful to define what one means by "moral." Do you mean morality in a descriptive sense (i.e., a code of ethics) or in a normative sense (i.e., an objective code that exists outside the individual or society, what most people seem to refer to when discussing morality)?

Personally, I don't believe in morality in the normative sense. I suppose one could argue that we have some genetic predispositions as a species that may very well be classified as "morality," but in general, I don't think morality really exists.

I think that everyone has a code of ethical behavior -- what he believes to be right and wrong -- even if he has never sat down and defined it for himself. That code of ethics is likely highly influenced by whatever culture a person belongs to, one way or another, but it is still an individual thing.

Now, it may well be that an individual's code of ethics says, "I can do any damn thing I want and fuck anyone who gets him my way." Could that be an interesting character? Sure. Would it be someone you'd want to know in real life? Maybe not.

As writers, I think we must understand what our characters' codes of ethics are, even if those characters don't understand their codes themselves. Our characters must act in a way that is consistent with their codes of ethics. Sometimes, that means characters must have a rigid sense of absolute morality -- this thing is right or this thing is wrong and it is always wrong, no matter what. Sometimes, it means that characters get to be wishy washy because their codes of ethics are situational and subjective.

Whatever we decide for our characters, I think it's important they behave consistently, and that if we need them to behave in a manner that contradicts what we have established about their codes of ethics, we have an obligation to set up the motivation for that action, or to suggest that the characters' real codes of ethics are different from what they appeared to be.

It's complicated.

L.

Lamar Henderson said...

Also, I think it's important to understand whether the universe in which our fiction takes place is "a moral universe" or not.

By "a moral universe," I mean whether the fictional universe within which our stories take place has a morality in the normative sense, or whether it is amoral, as I would argue the "real" world is.

Within a moral universe, it may very well be that karma (as misdefined within Western culture) wins out in the end and that characters who flout the universe's moral code get what's coming to them.

L.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It all comes down to the writing for me. A good writer can make an immoral character well worth reading about. A poor writer can't bring a character good or bad, or even a great plot to life.
Also there are readers who don't see that a writer is attempting to use an immoral character to shed light on something important. Because a character is immoral doesn't mean the writer condones or even forgives him/her.
Having said this, I do think a story needs someone the reader can touch base with. If we didn't have the teenager in Animal Kingdom to anchor us, it would have been unbearable.

David Cranmer said...

First, thanks for posting a pic of Maria Bello. Pretty as heck. Second, I want conflict in my heroes and I want the bad guy to win occasionally because they certainly do in the real world. My own character, Cash Laramie, is gradually going to ride to the dark side of the trail because that makes for interesting reading and character development.

Mike Dennis said...

Most characters in my novels, like all people I think, are susceptible to flaws in the human condition. When they find themselves in over their heads as a result of their own unfortunate choices, some of them will cross the line.

And I think that the point at which they cross that line, the point at which they enter into a sort of moral twilight, is the point where the reader becomes fully engaged.

The days of the white hats and square jaws are gone.

Travener said...

Amoral characters who finally act in a moral/courageous/ethical way, often contrary to their own interests/survival/supposed moral code reaffirm what it is to be human. Like Kevin Kostner in every movie he's ever made. I know it's hard to believe Kevin Kostner is life-affirming, but there you go.