This was going to be a post about morals in stories, then it became a post specifically about unintended morals, and that’s still sort of the gist, but I think I got a bit rambly about it, and wandered off a bit. I think ‘implications’ is the better word – hence, the title. I just thought I’d give a fair warning. Also, this is just me musing about this subject, these aren’t rules. I’m certainly no authority, it’s just my thoughts on things.
So yes, unintended morals. Some writers choose to use their stories to give a lesson, and others just come across like they were doing so, without meaning to. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, but others it is. How does this happen? Well, sometimes it’s just the writer’s opinions reflecting in their writing, which is something that I think will naturally happen, but when it comes to matters that are heavily debated, I don’t think you want to be wandering into that by accident. If you’re going to walk into marshes, you want to know you’re doing it and be properly prepared, not to just stumbled in.
Other times, you get books where I would assume the author does not actually believe in the ideas that are coming across, but they do come across. Books that garner a lot of negative attention often do thanks to some unintended implications. And ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ doesn’t really go very far as an excuse. It might stop people thinking you have certain opinions – and that is a might – but it won’t alter what you’ve written. Sometimes it’s not so bad, a slightly awkward implication isn’t so terrible a thing. But I have noticed some truly messed up morals in stories I’ve written, which fortunately weren’t shared with the world at large. But I know it can happen; when you’re focused on the story, you don’t always notice the implications of it.
So what can be done about this? Just lots of proofreading, and trying to think things through properly. Getting somebody else to read through and give their honest opinion on it. Of course, they might miss something too, I don’t think there’s any way of really guaranteeing you won’t hit this problem. All you can really do is try to weed out anything really bad, try to minimise the risk.
For the rest of this post I’ll just be floating ideas on ways this could happen. I’ve made my point already, these are just some vaguely specific ways this might happen that I can think of. This is where the rambling starts, is what I’m saying.
I think one of the most vulnerable genres is romance. It’s easy to accidentally write an unhealthy relationship. For instance, you may have a character pursue another character who is not that interested. That’s a staple of the genre, but at a point, if they are too aggressive about it, or if the other character shows that they are not interested at all, it does start to look like stalking. And a character being attentive to their partner and concerned for their partner’s well being can slip over the line into stifling and controlling, if it starts to infringe on the partner’s own free will.
I think you also want your characters to have got confirmation of a mutual interest before they start acting like they’re in a relationship. Certain behaviours can take on different tones depending on what point they happen. It’s perfectly understandable to be upset if one’s significant other is flirting with other people. It’s also understandable to be upset if someone you would like to be in a relationship with is flirting with other people. But in one case, there is actually cause for complaint, while the other is just something you have to just deal with on your own. It’s not a great start when a character is openly annoyed because their still single love interest is showing an interest in someone else.
And it won’t necessarily help if the reader knows the other party is interested. If the narrator is being pursued by another character, and they are romantically interested in this other character, but they do nothing to let the other character know this, and yet the other character aggressively pursues them anyway, then maybe a reader won’t pick up on the implications there, but some will. To put it in a shorter sentence; it’s not what the readers know, it’s what the characters know.
And it’s probably not the best idea to have characters getting married after a couple of weeks or something. Sure, you may know that they’re a perfect match and can get through anything together, but they can’t possibly know that. They might think they know that, but in reality lots of couples that don’t work out think that. How are readers supposed to know that this specific couple happen to be right about it?
Of course, you might be trying to write an unhealthy relationship, or about infatuation being mistaken for love. But I find that unless there is something indicating otherwise, readers will assume a romantic relationship is supposed to be a good one. To be honest, it seems like some readers will do that whatever, but you at least want a leg to stand on when people criticise it. It doesn’t have to be spelt out, but it’s good to have something in the text you can point to.
And of course just because two characters are in love with eachother it doesn’t mean they only get to be nice to eachother. You still want to show them being good people outside of their relationship. And characters who will literally do anything in the name of love can easily become unlikable if they go too far. I feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but I have seen stories that seem to say you should be willing to do absolutely anything for the person you love, even if it involves hurting other people. I like to think that was accidental, but honestly it’s sometimes hard to understand what they were going for.
That’s one that can apply to non-romantic stories too. Just because someone is the most important person in the main character’s life, doesn’t make them the most important person in the world. Since readers are following the main character and typically getting in their heads, and just because none of the story is actually real, I think they’re usually willing to give a bit more leeway than they would to someone in the real world. I certainly am. Characters in stories can get away with going a bit too far in trying to save or help their loved ones, but there does come a point when it’s just too much.
And the converse of that is that not liking the hero doesn’t make a character bad. Before you decide to ‘punish’ a character for some misdeed, take a proper look at their behaviour and make sure they do actually deserve it, especially if you’re going to have one of your heroes do the punishing. Do they even need punishing at all? Even if a character has actively done something unpleasant, it might not be bad enough to warrant some comeuppance. And if you decide it does, ensure it’s proportionate. Otherwise you may come off as having a kind of twisted and petty world view.
You want to be especially careful with that if other antagonistic characters are allowed a redemption. I’m not saying all bad characters need to be given a chance to redeem themselves, but there’s a difference between not being redeemed, and actually being irredeemable. If a character is treated as being the scum of the earth while a worse one is given a second chance, that can come across a bit unfair. Again, they don’t have to be redeemed, just not treated by the narrative and other characters like they’re a lost cause. Otherwise, you can get a situation where one of your heroes who’s condemning another character has done much worse things themselves – and even if the redeemed character isn’t joining in the condemnation, it still comes across as hypocritical on the part of the ones who’ve accepted. I suppose this might be softened if the redeemed character or at least one of the others is more sympathetic towards the still bad one. One thing that can lessen most of the things I’ve brought up is to have a sympathetic character bringing up the other side of things.
And, on the topic of redemption, what has a character actually done to earn it? Sometimes they don’t really have to do much other than be sorry, but just like being mean to one of the heroes doesn’t make a character evil, being nice to them doesn’t undo all bad behaviours. Personally, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth when a character has done awful things, but because they decided they like the hero it’s all OK. I think, personally, I like redeemed characters to be forgiven by someone they’ve actually, seriously wronged. It annoys me when a hero gets to offer forgiveness just because they’re the hero, when actually they’re not the ones who should be being asked. I guess I wouldn’t just want them blindly hating everyone who’s done something wrong either, but I think, at least, an acknowledgement that others are still within their rights to be angry goes a long way.
I’m going to stop now, because this post is now only tangentially linked to what it was supposed to be. If I ever get an urge to ramble more on this loose definition of a subject I can always do another post. I hope I’ve managed to be… something in this post. I hope anyone who’s read it doesn’t feel like I’ve wasted their time too much. And if you have, thank you.