By Russel D McLean
Its not spoiling anything about my novels to say my protagonist, J McNee, has killed a man. After all, the first book opens with a line that tells us as much.
But McNee has his reasons for doing so. Whether or not you agree with his actions, he is justified within his own mind as to what he did. I'm not sure even I agree with him entirely, but then that's not my job as an author.
Too many crime novelists inject a kind of judgement on their characters. The authorial voice present within the novel judges and condemns certain actions, layers a certain morality on top of the work that more often than not is of a very traditional kind.
But one of the joys of crime fiction is that it allows us to ask questions. Moral questions. Ethical questions. Questions of relativity. And while it is tempting to raise these questions in order to answer them, I think that its a poor novelist who does so absolutely. After all, fiction is a conversation between the work and the reader, and while the author may have certain goals in mind, if they start whacking the reader over the head with their own assumptions it weakens the novel.
That's not to say that its easy to allow your characters to develop their own moral compass. In early drafts of THE GOOD SON, McNee was far more liberal than he is in the final drafts. In fact he went so far as to refuse to carry a gun when one was offered to him. He rose above the level of the men he was going up against and went to that fatal confrontation unarmed.
Until one of my early readers pointed out that McNee was bringing "a cricket bat to a gun fight" and that McNee would be dead within a moment.
So how to get round it?
The answer was easy: stop imposing my own morality on McNee. After all, I would not carry a gun. Yes, I have fired a gun before, but I remain in favour of strict gun control.
And McNee might feel the same on one level, but on another it made sense for him to accept the gun and take it to this confrontation. And, in the end, to use it.
It opened up a whole side to the character I had never seen before. It made him more complex. More importantly, it made the narrative more complete in terms of morality, because McNee's actions were no longer simply moral in the traditional sense, but were situationally so. He made a decision that may have been best for getting him out of one situation, but which would bring more complexity to his life and his own conscience.
Morality in crime fiction novels is up for debate. What is the right thing to do in a situation that is utterly removed from the everyday? Will your decisions have unforseen consequences? How do you live with those decisions?
I don't like to offer answers in my fiction, or to impose any sense of my own judgements onto my narrative. I have my own personal ones, but I like to use characters to explore issues of moral relativity. To show how morality and ethical behaviour can be fluid within people, can be truly situational. This is easier to do when you have a protagonist who is not in a position of moral authority (such as an appointed investigator or policeman) but someone who can act outside of protocols and ideals of others, who can form their own morality and whose behaviour can be fluidly affected by the situations in which they find themselves.
McNee does not reflect my own morality. But he helps me to explore it. I would no longer impose my own sense of ethics upon him. Because to do so would be cheating. But he helps me to see other points of view, to understand another way of seeing the world. This is something that I think all fictional characters do to a degree, to both readers and writers. To read or write about a character is not to read or write about ourselves, but to see how others act and react, to try and understand them. Of course, fiction should be entertaining as well, but entertainment also allows us to gain new perspectives on the world in ways we might not even always consciously realise.