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?


  1. […] artists are trying to change the world through their art. But not all. I don’t even know if all of us should, whatever Toni Morrison says. But all of us do send little pieces of ourselves out into the world […]

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