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  1. #1

    Grey scale morality in fiction

    Now to be quite honest, I'm something of a fan of this. We don't always know what's right and some times our actions have unintended consequences.In fiction this also allows one to project your own understanding of the events being described.When used right it makes everything rather compelling.Black and white morality is often too simplistic. Even heroes may have terrible flaws and villains may possess redeeming qualities. These combinations humanize characters in many ways and make them more relatable.

    However I do have some problems with this. I some times think readers feel lost when they don't have a character who serves as the guiding light, someone who represents hope in a terrible world.Now this can in a number of cases be attributed to readers being lazy, but not always. It's difficult for a number of people to stick with a story if all the characters are equally detestable. For example in the Song of Ice and Fire series very few characters can be described as heroic. Now while I sing Martin's praises for making fantasy so believable, there are few characters I don't want to see eventually meet some form of unimaginably painful and brutal end. Especially the Lannisters with the exception of Tyrion. I got one of my wishes when Tyrion killed Tywin, now if only Jaime would just die already. of course, Jeoffrey being poisoned was something I long waited for, though I would have written a far more terrifying demise for him. Anyway, the few who I actually feel enough sympathy for usually end up dying such as Ned Stark.

    There are some universal concepts in human morality though there interpretation varies from culture to culture. Whether we like it or not, our minds are geared around ideals. We take some concepts to be universal and while it's good to upend these ideas from time to time, I think this may also contribute to the reader being lost. In a way it may make the struggle in the work of fiction or the work itself seem pointless to some.

    So I'm wondering, how does one balance this out? How does one work within a world of grey and keep some form of balance? How does one handle these problems? I already have my own ideas, but I want to hear other people's opinions on such quandaries.

  2. #2
    It might be useful to start with some well-regarded fiction where the situation and major characters are morally ambiguous, and then work backwards.

    Catch-22
    The Drowned World
    The Naked and the Dead
    A Clockwork Orange
    Slaughterhouse 5
    Candide
    Madame Bovary
    The Merchant of Venice
    Scoop
    The Ginger Man
    Titus Groan
    Our Man in Havana
    Flashman
    An Ideal Husband/The Importance of Being Earnest
    Huckleberry Finn
    Confederacy of Dunces
    The Final Programme

    One observation is that it is easier to produce satire in a morally grey situation. Another thought is that the archetypal muscular upstanding morally certain hero with good teeth and chivalrous intents is quite boring and limited (eg Christian in Pilgrim's Progress), and it is usually the dodgy guys who are more interesting. Flashman is a brilliant pisstake of the Victorian hero who is really an utter cad, working his way through a corrupt world dressed up in respectability.
    Last edited by Hitmouse; May 2nd, 2012 at 04:09 PM. Reason: thought of more examples

  3. #3
    Gloriam Imperator kged's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Riothamus View Post
    Spoiler:
    For example in the Song of Ice and Fire series...now if only Jaime would just die already.
    Be careful before unspoilering anything in this post, because I suspect you haven't yet read all of the available books in ASoIaF, as you are seemingly unaware of
    Spoiler:
    Jaime's journey.
    It's one of the more remarkable things I've ever read in fantasy fiction, perhaps a more unexpected and yet totally convincing turnaround than I have read in any character in any genre. It may yet inform your views on this subject.

    For some reason the first examples of questionable morality that leap to mind are from the graphic novels of Alan Moore, the greatest living Englishman. "Watchmen" has every imaginable point on the spectrum, from a fascistic thug looking for a veneer of respectability to a post-human God who doesn't really understand what morality is, in any sense that would mean anything to us; while "V for Vendetta" has atrocious things being done by the hero, for "good" reasons.

    It's late, but I'll give this some thought and revisit at a more civilized hour. Good thread.

  4. #4
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    I'm reading now A Confederacy of Dunces : a more despicable main character is hard to image, but he serves the purpose of shining a cruel, satyrical light on the less savoury aspects of our modern civilization.

    One book I like to recommend regarding good or bad characters is John Steinbeck's East of Eden. There's a passage in there discussing the translation of the word "timshel" from the Bible: if we are promised redemption regardless of how we act here on Earth, why bother being good? Or, if the course of our life is predetermined at birth, why struggle to change anything? The answer is in this word - timshel - considered as "free will" : the greatest gift we have received as human beings, and also the greatest responsibility, in the sense we are free to chose our own way in life, but this freedom means accepting the consequences of our actions.

  5. #5
    Registered User theonefirestorm's Avatar
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    Treasure Island
    The Main Villain Long John Silver has a physical disability but still is shown to be physically courageous, a father figure and mentor to Jim Hawkins. and pays attention to money management instead of being another pirate with spendthrift ways.

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    Registered User theonefirestorm's Avatar
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    Treasure Island
    The Main Villain Long John Silver has a physical disability but still is shown to be physically courageous, a father figure and mentor to Jim Hawkins. and pays attention to money management instead of being another pirate with spendthrift ways.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Riothamus View Post
    [...] So I'm wondering, how does one balance this out? How does one work within a world of grey and keep some form of balance? How does one handle these problems? I already have my own ideas, but I want to hear other people's opinions on such quandaries.
    Morally gray characters in fiction help to accept the fact there is no pure black ('evíl') or white ('good'). A reader's response of 'feeling lost' should evoke reflection and perhaps ultimately acceptance (so imo feeling lost is a good thing). The hopeful message ofc being that seemingly evil people are also capable of 'good' acts - aSoIaF providing plenty of examples...another thing I think writers such as Martin (or indeed the aforementioned Watchmen) point out is that are no "rules" or absolutes. Living according to a 'universal ideal' does not automatically mean recognition or a long life (i.e. Ned Stark...). Indeed, the more flawed, the longer they tend to stay around...

    So 'how does one balance this out'? As Algernoninc pointed out, this is where indivdual choice comes in - and again, there are no rules; you can only do what you think is best - and accept the consequences. And I think perhaps the latter, not the former distinguishes 'good' from 'evil'...

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by theonefirestorm View Post
    Treasure Island
    The Main Villain Long John Silver has a physical disability but still is shown to be physically courageous, a father figure and mentor to Jim Hawkins. and pays attention to money management instead of being another pirate with spendthrift ways.
    You might care to read Flint and Silver by John Drake. It moves Silver towards the light grey of the spectrum. You also get to meet Flint who is on the dark grey end.

  9. #9
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    People that fall on grey morality scale are business leaders, corrupt politicians, drug cartel don's, and all other syndicated or non crime organizations there are. They do evil deeds, but not for the reasons of evil above, but because they want money. Yes, there may be white underneath the grey, but it is the grey actions that defines them. A man who takes all the money from a middle-class family (please don't let this become a political argument) to give to a supporter of his while lining his own pockets at the same time is a good example of grey scale morality.

  10. #10
    Ink-stained Wretch Teresa Edgerton's Avatar
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    For me, as a reader, it depends on how grey. I do want characters I can sympathize with, but I realize that in some situations it's very hard to follow our best instincts and we fail. So long as a character takes responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions, I can stick with them. If I think everyone in a story is despicable, then I have no emotional stake in the outcome, and quit reading.

    As a writer, I don't want to glorify or justify morally questionable behavior (make it understandable, yes, but that's not the same), and in part that's because I don't want to help, even in my small way, to promote the kind of thinking that leads to the kind of behavior that John Davy describes. I think that more people used to give more thought to what was right and what was wrong in deciding how to act. I think they were often totally misguided and did more harm than good, but that the total sum of good intentions caused our own society to evolve beyond the point where, for instance, we were burning people at the stake just for being different. I don't know where we are going now with the way that so many people accept grey morality, or amorality, as inevitable, but I suspect that it's nowhere good.

    I try to create a balance with my own characters. Some serve the "wrong" cause but with good intentions. Some serve the "right" cause but are coming to question whether everything they have done is justified. Some on both sides don't care; they just want what they want and will do whatever they have to do to get it, no matter who gets hurt.
    Last edited by Teresa Edgerton; February 6th, 2013 at 04:15 PM.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Teresa Edgerton View Post
    I do want characters I can sympathize with, but I realize that in some situations it's very hard to follow our best instincts and we fail.
    Like Rumplestitskin in Once Upon A Time? Evil and unprincipled, yes, but you really have to feel for him at times, especially when Belle has a go at him. As for Regina, I see her as a very sad person who has lost their moral compass rather than a complete villain. On number thrre, beyond wanting the best for her daughterI have yet to see a good side in Cora. As for her hobby, yes we all should have one, but hers takes the biscuit,

  12. #12
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    I am reminded of a quote attributed to Oliver Wilde;

    "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

    At the moment, I work in a field, where questions of morality and ethics, as well as lawfulness or the lack thereof are often dealt with. When I started in this field years ago, I had a very definite view, partly shaped by literature, of what was good, what was evil and the role of neutrality. Without going into a long list of my experiences, I can now state that, I believe there are very few circumstances or positions of "ultimate good/evil." There have been numerous times when looking at the actions of others, based on their experiences, the circumstances, their beliefs and the environment they were in, what they have done can appear, at least to them, as logical and even justified.

    Back to your comment on how do you balance it? Let's take Tywen Lannister as an example. From where I sit, in my own particular community, time, and upbringing most of what he does is morally, ethically and legally wrong. However, in the same respect look at it from his perspective, the situation he finds himself in, his motivations and the environment. Really, all he is trying to do is assure the relative safety and prosperity of his children, even at the risk of his own "noble cause" corruption. To him, the end ultimately justifies the means. No matter what you as a writer do, short of the blunt literary instrument of outright stating that this is the noblest and most virtuous character you will ever read about, people will make their own assessments of a character and place them on their own scale of "grey" be it a lighter or darker shade. Whilst there are some methods you can employ, to make readers relate to a character, I think ultimately if your writing reaches a wide audience with varying beliefs, experiences and communities, then the "morality scale" is never going to be uniform.

  13. #13
    Registered User MourningStar's Avatar
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    bring on the ambiguity

    I think most readers like to have at least one character that they can relate to in some way. Most people like to bond with characters that are struggling to do good or become better people because most readers feel that they, too, and struggling with this.

    I personally love ambiguity in characters, especially those that have a very progressive arc, whether it be good to evil or vice versa. I don't like every "evil" character to reform, nor do I want every "pure" character to be dragged through the mud. If we didn't have villains then we wouldn't have very interesting stories to tell, but we also can't all be epic heroes. I think the balance lies in giving each character a humanizing feature: personality trait, addiction, back story, whatever. You don't have to excuse their bad behavior because they got picked on in school, but give the reader some piece of information that they can understand.

    It's interesting that you mentioned the Song of Ice and Fire series, because as I was reading I found that I eventually could identify with characters I thought I hated, like Jaime and Cersei, based on the progressive telling of their back story. Joffrey, not so much. But it's nice to have a range of character morality.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by MourningStar View Post
    I don't like every "evil" character to reform, nor do I want every "pure" character to be dragged through the mud.
    I agree. Some evil will always remain so and there is no reason to trash everything that is good.

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