Monday, August 22, 2011

The Moral of the Story

When you write, do you try to tell a story, or teach a lesson? Is it possible to do both?

There is a passage in Ian McEwan's Atonement, where young Briony, an aspiring author herself, contemplates this question. She concludes: "There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have."

But here's the rub: When you create fictional characters in a fictional world, is this in any way a true representation or different minds in the real world? The more I study fiction writing, the more I realize that fictional characters aren't supposed to act like real people. In fact, in Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham states that "fiction must make more sense than real life," and that involves creating characters who, to some extent, make sense also.

But do people make sense? Kant wrote that "We can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action." In The Social Animal, David Brooks describes our attempt to define our character in life as virtually impossible. Instead, life is a series of fragmented events, where we are sometimes motivated by ambition, money, etc., and sometimes not. We wear different masks, but is there a true self beneath these masks?

Sebastian Faulks wrote "Books explain the real world." Do they? Or do they just explain the world we'd like to believe in?


  1. I've always liked what Hemingway said about fiction: "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwords it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."

    I have grown to believe that good fiction has enough truth in it to resonate with the reader. Whether we write with a moral lesson in mind or not, if it reads true and the reader can relate to what's on the page, they will take their own lessons out of it. Resonance is a remarkable teacher.

    But then again, what the heck do I know?!

  2. You are deep today Kim (not that you aren't always :) Maybe it's because I'm reading this at 12:31 am, but your questions have my head spinning.

    I think books can be as false or genuine as we make them, but it's the human emotions that make it "real", even books full of fantasy, zombies, dragons can be "real".

    I write morals because that is just how I see the world--in lessons :)

  3. Angie - It was late when I posted this, too! Now that I read it again, I'm not sure if I agree with what I wrote :)
    Curtis, I agree - fiction is the most compelling when, like you said,some "truth" within it resonates with us. I do think there is something funny about the way these truths are packaged in artifice, though...

  4. Ooooo, I like that Hemingway quote that Curtis posted!

    I like morals. At the end of hours of reading I would like to say that I'm a better person for having spent my time that way. But nobody like didacticism. Morals can be very subtle. We can learn from the good and the bad.

    Yeah, fiction isn't real life. It must be relatable in some way, but it's not real life.

  5. What a beautifully-considered post, Kim. I feel like I'd wish to read it more than once before responding but perhaps my initial response is legitimate.

    After reading the first paragraph, and truly allowing it to sink into my thinking, I was a bit jarred by your words on its heels. I didn't expect there to be a rub. It rang true for me. But the more I read your words, I felt my own cognizance stretching to encompass all you were presenting.

    I'd have to say that I agree with you-- characters in books are somehow required to be even more dimensional than the people we know. It is as if life is more forgiving of flat living than fiction. But I suppose if this were not true, why bother to read fiction when you can simply sit on your doorstep and watch the muted microdramas of neighbors and strangers?

    Fiction does need to be sharper, more vibrant and more demanding of life than life in order to be worthy of another's attention. That said, I don't mean to communicate that this means each character and situation need be 'larger than life.' Just more acute.

  6. Great post, and very thought-provoking. I guess it all comes down to this: We don't like unanswered questions. In life, we know we'll never know what people are really thinking. We won't always figure out why they do what they do. But in a book? We want to know it all (by the end) or we're left unsatisfied.