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Do Writers Have a Moral Obligation to Society?

This is a serious question (and a series of questions), and I’m really curious what other writers think about moral obligation and writing.

It’s pretty clear that many people believe that books can change the world, including the types of books that many of us are interested in writing – novels intended to be read for pleasure. My question is if regular books can change the world, what kind of moral obligation does that put on writers?

Take for example a societal norm that you object to. Do you show a character not only exhibiting that behavior but also getting away with it (or perhaps being rewarded for it) because that’s more common? Or do you show a negative result or commentary on the behavior? (Some sort of societal or legal punishment? Karma? People standing up against the behavior? An inner monologue by the main character showing disgust, anger, or horror?)

Let’s take bullying from a professor on a college level. Say that your story is set in a college that is known for that behavior. You, however, feel very strongly that such behavior is wrong. Does the bullying professor get away with the behavior and receive support from the heads of the college? Or do you arrange for some sort of karmic punishment?

The first method is almost certainly more realistic. If the action is common in that society, it’s going to be accepted or rewarded when it occurs. So putting it in your novel could make the story a believable reflection of society (whether you like that aspect of society or not). At the same time, could reading about that negative act being rewarded reinforce that behavior in real life? By writing about the action realistically and without showing any punishment, could you be encouraging that behavior? A behavior you despise? (A terrifying thought!)

On the other hand, could writing about it in a way that shows it to be wrong do the opposite? By showing negative results or a character’s disapproval in the story, could you influence the morals of your readers? Could that encourage a change in society? And if it could, as writers, do we have a moral obligation to put that potential for change into our books?

Wow. I mean… yikes. These are big scary questions to consider. There are a lot of ifs involved, and there’s no real way to know one way or the other if some of these things are truly possible. And if they are… that sounds like a really heavy burden. There are so many societal problems – could you possibly address them all that way? How do you pick them? Do you put the same one in every story? Or do you focus on ones that come up naturally with each plot/setting? And even if you only focus on one or two, how does accepting that kind of responsibility affect your ability to write a story?

Can you try to change society and still write a good story?

I think you can – as long as the social changes are integrated into the story rather than coming off like proselytizing. There’s only so much preaching that can go into a story before you lose the audience’s interest. So if writers want to tackle some social change within a fiction story, it still needs to stay woven within the story.

So if it’s possible, should we? Does every story have to have some sort of moral message?

Does it need to? I don’t know. Will it? Well, yeah. No matter what a writer decides, there will be some moral messages in the story – intentional or not. Since the story is told from one or more specific characters’ perspectives, it is also framed by their moral values and judgments. So some sort of moral perspective has to show through, right? Especially if the story is complex enough to improve empathy.

Does that mean we don’t have to purposely try to insert seeds for social change? Will our morals naturally shape our writing enough to be clear to the readers? I’m not sure. If you’re trying to write realistically about a character very unlike yourself, it’s very possible that the morals expressed in the book won’t match your own. What if your choice of characters, plot, and worldbuilding somehow supports a societal norm that you’re not even consciously aware of?

I know. That’s a lot of questions, quite a bit of rambling, and not a lot of answers. That’s why I’m curious what other writers think. Do writers need to consciously shape their stories to reshape society? Is it something to watch for in edits? (To make sure that you’re not accidentally supporting something you don’t want to?) Or do we write the best story we can and hope everything works out?

What do you think? Do writers have some kind of moral obligation to society?

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Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Old Proverb

No, it’s not a Mark Twain quote – or at least not one that’s been backed up by reliable resources.

If you Google this proverb, you’ll come up with plenty of sites that attribute it to Mark Twain (Goodreads, for one); however, I haven’t been able to find any reliable proof that he actually said it. And while I’d like to be able to say that it’s his quote (there’s something emotionally satisfying about quoting Mark Twain), I like to at least try to use accurate quotes and attributions.

What I did find is articles about how often Mark Twain is misquoted. There’s a whole website called Unquotable: Mark Twain, dedicated humorously to making up quotes that people will believe are his (not very helpful but interesting). The best actual research I found was compiled in a Huffington Post article called “That’s What He Said: Quoting Mark Twain.” The article lists various resources for checking whether the line you’re using was actually written by or said by Mark Twain. Some even let you search his letters and written works.

Well, I searched through those for this quote, and it was not in there. I looked through their lists of quotes by topic, and it still wasn’t there. I even did a Google Book search (a good way to verify quotes by writers, by the way), and none of the books that came up were his (or even that old). One of them, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, happens to be on my bookshelf (I guess I should’ve started there), and although it traces the line back to several variations and sources, none of those sources are Mark Twain.

Of course, at this point, the idea that Mark Twain said this is so firmly entrenched in the internet that there’s no changing it, true or false. Which is also kind of funny in context with the quote, isn’t it?

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Fairy Folklore as Inspiration for Writing

From what I’ve seen, every culture has folklore involving fairies or other spirits, and they make great inspiration for all genres. Although serious usage may require more research than a St. Patrick’s Day writing prompt. Whether you need fresh ideas for types of magic (worldbuilding), ways to frighten people, or even human behavior, fairy stories have a lot to offer – as many writers have found before us.

While we no longer think of them that way, the idea of elves and dwarves commonly used in the fantasy genre are rooted in much older superstitions about faeries. And going back to take a look at the concepts of those creatures (especially ones that predate modern fiction) can help give you a fresh look at the genre’s tropes. I especially like looking at older books about beliefs of the time because the perspective is very different from what you hear now – well, that, and a good number are free on Project Gutenberg.

For example: The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley and Witchcraft and Superstitious Record in the Western District of Scotland by Mawell Wood, M.B. Those books focus on celtic faeries and superstitions, but if you search “superstitions,” you’ll see a plethora of options from a variety of cultures. You probably know some of them already (like the myths from Ancient Greece), but there are plenty more to discover. Some are dark and terrifyingly powerful. Others are surprisingly vulnerable and fragile. And since stories of these creatures were originally told orally, there’s often varying accounts of what each creature can do, likes, hates, etc.

Which leads me to my favorite part of using fairy mythology as inspiration: there is simply so much fodder that 5 authors could use the same faeries as inspiration and get 5 very different worlds, characters, and stories out of it. Make that 5,000 authors (and I’m not even sure that’s hyperbole). Seriously, though, if you take the old ideas and make them your own, there is unlimited potential for exciting new stories.

Every try it? Which fairies or spirits inspire you?

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Even Authors Pick Apart People’s Plots: Terry Pratchett & Dr. Who

“You can't remember the plot of the Dr Who movie because it didn't have one, just a lot of plot holes strung together. It did have a lot of flashing lights, though.” - Terry Pratchett Quote

Ouch! Burn!

For all that we’re liable to be on the receiving end, writers aren’t always the nicest about pointing out other people’s plot holes. In reality, writers can be really harsh critics (kind of like how teachers are generally awful students, and doctors make bad patients). Since writers know more about writing (we assume), they can find more flaws.

Of course, a little empathy and kindness never hurts when talking about other people’s works. We all make mistakes, and the harsher you are on others, the more eager they’re going to be about pointing out your mistakes.

Then again, Terry Pratchett generally had something witty to say when someone pointed out flaws in his works, too: “There are no inconsistencies in the Discworld books; ocassionally, however, there are alternate pasts.”