The Problem With Moral Abiguity In Fiction

The Problem With Moral Ambiguity in Fiction

by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

In a recent guest essay on Suvudu, my friend, Editor-Author James L. Sutter suggests that moral ambiguity in fantasy makes for richer, better books. He cites George R.R. Martin’s popular Song Of Ice and Fire as an example of such and sites J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings as an example of overly simplistic, less interesting fantasy. Considering that Tolkein is still the high standard and influencer of most of fantasy written today, I cannot agree with that entirely. But it’s complex. Sutter is not at all suggesting Tolkein’s work is not incredible and admirable. He just suggests Tolkein’s broad strokes of morality are dated and less appropriate for our time.

At one point, Sutter writes:

“It’s also boring. By the time most of us are old enough to read, we’ve mastered the concept of good guys versus bad guys. It doesn’t mean we don’t still enjoy watching it, but taking such distinctions as a given removes a valuable part of the storytelling equation. If you know the good guys…are going to win, there’s no real tension.”

In a world where nihilism seems to rule the day, where people question a government’s motives for going to war or whether war is moral, where people complain about people judging others, about inqualities, etc., how can it be wrong to write stories which show a clearer sense of morality? What kind of future are we positing for our children? What kind of heroes are we offering them as role models? Don’t we have a responsibility to do better?

Sutter’s argument is that Martin’s characters are flawed and walk the lines between good and bad motivations and thus are more interesting and more like real people. Their world is a mess and so are they are thus they and their world are more like our own. But I think part of the problem with our world is that we are constantly told by entertainment media that our world is a mess and we can’t make it better and it’s hopeless to try. We are bombarded with images of violence, sex, language, etc. which of things, people, places being torn apart. We are shown these as motivated by impurities and negative motives more often than pure motives. And we are told that’s because human beings will always go that way by nature. While I do believe in the depravity of man, I also believe man has the capacity to grow and reach beyond natural tendencies and become so much better than that. And that’s what I want from my heroes. While I don’t want unflawed, perfect heroes—who can relate to those either—at the same time, I do want to know who should win; who is on the right side.

For me, heroes in stories, as I’ve said, are characters that show us who we wish we were and qualities we can strive for to be better people. People whose goals are less selfless and more servant oriented toward their fellow man and community and world. I do believe there’s hope and that we can make a difference. And I strongly believe future generations need and want to believe that too. Have we raised whole generations incapable of seeing that? It’s not for me to say, but while I enjoy the complexity of Martin’s storytelling and characters, in the end, the stories leave me empty and sad. His world is not a fun one to inhabit and not a place I’d ever want to visit. Most of his characters are not people I admire and wish I knew. Some have admirable qualities. Some do admirable things. But overall, I am left wondering why they get up every day. What motivates those people to keep going? I do see a few more admirable types in the series. Granted, I have only read two of five books so far, but the other types predominate. And while that may be a realistic portrayal of real people, I also believe another kind of people exist in the real world, too.

I believe there are people in this world who have purer motives, living to serve others and truly desiring to make themselves and their world better. Why do I believe it? Because those are the motives which have ruled my life. Am I perfect? No! In no way, am I. I have sinful desires and bad motives sometimes. I suffer temptations. I make mistakes. I hurt people. But my goals have never been to get rich, famous and live at the expense of anyone and everyone else. My goals have always been to find ways to help other people. In my stories, I want to entertain them, help them dream of a brighter world, and show them admirable characters they can look up to and strive to emulate. In my teaching and musical performing, I strive to encourage them the same ways and offer examples from history or demonstrate from my interactions with them that such things are possible. I know many others who do the same. My parents are like that, too.

All of us are flawed. There’s nothing wrong with showing that. In fact, I think it’s irresponsible not to. Cardboard characters, good guy or bad guy, are not compelling or interesting, because they are not real. But at the same time, as nihilism and moral ambiguity dominate people’s thinking, so they will dominate our world and shape how we live in it. If we teach people there is no right and wrong, we create a world of people who believe that. And I think most of us would have to agree that’s just not the case. There are things which are truly evil and things which are good. Going around murdering people is bad. Going around exterminating people for religious reasons or skin color, etc. is bad. Going around raping people is bad. Does anyone really disagree with that or want to live in a world full of people who do? These are just examples. There are many others.

Books are powerful. Fantasy is powerful. I think books are tools and fantasy a medium filled with rich possibilities. And I think there’s a responsibility authors have to think about how they present their worlds and what the messages readers take out of them will be. And I think all books teach us things. The best books teach us both good and bad so we walk away changed but still encouraged that we can become and do better. That’s the problem, for me, with suggesting moral ambiguity in fiction is a better way to write. For people with a different worldview, perhaps, but it’s not a world I want to inhabit or visit or a place I strive to be. And, in the end, I don’t think it’s a better place than our present world has been in the past and strives to be.

Moral ambiguity should not be the only path we follow in writing stories. It has its place like anything else as a tool of craft. Too much and it becomes a hazard and irresponsible practice, too little, it becomes the same. There is a place for morality in storytelling and showing a world where moral values still exist. We live in that world. We’re better off in that world. The future’s brighter in such a world. And so are we.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, an honorable mention on Barnes & Noble’s Best SF Releases of 2011, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. He resides in Ottawa, KS with two precocious dogs.

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  1. With all due respect, I think I agree with your friend and editor, that in this day and age, its more interesting fiction to have a more complex and nuanced set of characters. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that is one reason Jane Austen is (still) so popular. Very few of her characters are ‘heroic’ consistently throughout the piece (except for the aptly named Mr Knightly) – admirable from beginning to end. While I love Mr, Knightly, Aragorn, Harry Potter, and all the other heroes in fiction — those characters and stories have their place, our world has (always had) many more shades of gray, and I’d like to read characters who have to look at the gray and sort it out. Jane Austen heroines from Lizzie Bennet, to Emma were both heroic and flawed in major ways. Very few readers actually want to ‘be’ Emma, she’s no example of how a person should be. Ways in which Austen, as an author, looked at the shades of grey in moral character included dramatic use of irony.

  2. Bryan, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. It’s a bit silly to say morally ambiguous characters make for a better story. The Lord of the Rings is one of the greats of literature because of its clear-cut battle between good and evil. However, I’m glad the Martins and Abercrombies exist in fantasy because I feel it’s important for the genre to explore all areas of the human existence.

    The danger of over doing it is very real, though. As you said, there is good and bad in the world. If we blend the line too much between the two we risk losing any sense of purpose our lives have. And although I enjoy the darker stories–because I like major internal conflicts in my characters–I too grow tired of how prevalent nihilism is becoming in modern America. Really it’s just sad to live life believing there is no purpose. The purpose is to better ourselves; this ought to be a daily struggle and goal for everyone.

    Give me characters who face tough moral choices–some can even fail–but give me a protagonist who chooses wisely. Would have been a shame had Indiana Jones sipped from the jewel-encrusted cup because he had a bit of a greedy side to him.

  3. Caludia: You can have shades of gray and moral characters. You can have a world with right and wrong and still have difficult choices. I think it’s the way the world works.

  4. Jordan, a couple corrections are coming from typos. I agree there’s a place for both types of fiction but arguing that one is better doesn’t make sense to me. I just wanted to counter that argument. I think the best fiction inspires us to be better people.

  5. One of the interesting things about the human condition is our ability to redefine our morality in the context we live in. While we can agree that murder is bad, there is also war. And there are plenty of arguments in almost every belief system that murdering those different from you is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s being done in your own defense. I’m sure that’s the argument that Saruman made to the orcs at some point, and it’s certainly the point that Aragorn makes to the Riders of Rohan.

    Besides, shades of gray go well in a medium that reveals so much of the internal life of its characters.

    Even in my own books there’s plenty of moral ambiguity. It’s hard to avoid it when you’re writing about the Victorian period simply because the people of that era who held power approached everything with a sense of divine “rightness”. Those stuffed shirts are ripe for puncturing—especially in modern era filled with people arguing on the internet. .

    That said, where I do agree with you is in the question of moral relativism and and underlying philosophy of existence. I think there’s been a tendency in some books to avoid the discussion of the higher moral issues and simply claim that underneath it all there’s nothing but blackness waiting to swallow us all up.Then even the gods become simply cruel puppet masters in a cosmic game of survival of the meanest. Once you enter into that world every death is an admission of failure, and there is no cost too high in the service of victory.

    It’s not fun for me to read those books because it posits a world where existence itself is an ultimately a futile endeavor, and we’re all ultimately playing out a highly complicated version of kill or be killed. And you also get heroes who simply mope about looking for a way to end up on the side of the guys with the biggest swords.

    Still, it’s not fair to lump them all together. I adore the worlds where the characters are fighting to go beyond nihilism and discover a reason for living beyond the simple pain and suffering. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Abnett’s 40K fiction, as well as Bacigalupi’s and Richard K. Morgan’s works. I’d also argue that it’s the core of many of China Mieville’s books.

    George RR Martin’s books skirt the edge of that. It often seems that the characters who are the most cynical and self-serving are the most rewarded, while those who believe are not only punished, but spend their last moments discovering that their entire life was a futile pursuit. But he’s also a master at giving us the tiny moments that reveal there may be more to life than fighting and suffering.

  6. And Andrew I think the morality of war is a complex issue. Who’s right? What are the underlying issues? What impact does victory for each side posit for the world? It’s not easily summed up. And while each side may believe they’re moral, as you say, there is a larger context and the larger context is really what I’m concerned with here.

  7. Shaun Farrell says

    Great discussion, everyone! I just corrected a few typos, by the way. Sorry I missed those upon initially posting.

    My two cents: When creating fantastic creatures or aliens from another world, authors must develop their morality, and we, as readers, must accept that such morality may be very different from our own. While something may be wrong from our perspective (and from the perspective of most), such may not be the case in an alien culture. Thus, science fiction provides an avenue to be outside ourselves and to contemplate moralities we hadn’t considered.

    I agree with just about everything being said here. Characters should be who they are and what their stories (and the overall story) demands. I don’t read authors who write books that are downers. I don’t want to feel depressed after reading something because there was no true hero, no man or woman who sought something greater, whatever that may be. But I don’t necessarily expect fiction to inspire me to greater ideals, either. I like a dark story; I dislike a story complete devoid of hope or meaning.

  8. And Shaun, I’m in agreement with what you said. I obviously didn’t explain well but the overall morality is what I’m talking about. Having shades of gray and morally ambiguous situations is interesting, but having no overall right and wrong in the world is depressing and hopeless. And not really believable to me. There are always such concepts even if one people groups has different ones than another. And those higher questions, to me, are important to be asked. I miss them when they are not.

  9. And Thanks for fixing the typos and such.

  10. I would gently point out that for a large number of readers there is no “overall right and wrong in the world” which we inhabit. Higher questions are only useful from a scientific view point, if at all. This doesn’t follow that the world is universally “depressing and hopeless” and seeing the same realism in fiction doesn’t trigger I suspect, your own personal reaction.

    I would go so far as to say that for people who do not believe in an abstract morality imposed upon the cosmos by either a philosophy or a deity, books which follow this stark morality are less palatable. If an author portrays their struggle between good and evil as “real” rather than just a belief held by their characters, then it is easy to be catapulted out our suspension of disbelief, for the rationalist reader.

    Obviously, there is room in literature for both. But I do think that moral ambiguity of this sort is capable (though not enough on its own) of creating more thematically complex novels. And complex themes can make for rewarding books.

  11. Hi Bryan.

    (It was inevitable I’d show up 🙂 )

    I think the reasons that moral ambiguity has gained resonance and has almost become the “default mode” is twofold:

    –Our current culture and society makes moral ambiguous characters and situations more appealing

    –Moral characters have been done so simplistically “Lawful stupid” that they have turned off lots of readers.

  12. I have no doubt, Paul. I just feel like we’ve gone off the deep end the other way and and some balance is needed.

  13. I don’t read enough fantasy in general, let alone high fantasy in particular, to comment on the state of the genre. I’m a huge fan of both LOTR & of ASOI&F. I agree that there is a place for “inspirational” high fantasy of which LOTR is the archetype. But I have much more appetite for fiction in general, including high fantasy, that comments on the real world & the human condition the way that ASOI&F does so well. I don’t think I even agree with the premise that ASOI&F is morally ambiguous to begin with – it depends on the term is defined.

  14. Moral characters are important, because as you say, they do exist and it’s important to represent them. I don’t disagree there, they provide a necessary vehicle for giving antagonists what’s coming. But they move in a grey world, and frequently their upstanding attitude hinders them (see: Ned at the end of Game of Thrones).

    However, language like this: “I do want to know who should win; who is on the right side” reveals what is dangerous about moralistic storytelling. Accepting an author’s constructions comes with their biases and their narratives. It also establishes an “us vs them” mentality, supports othering, and limits understanding. Moral stories favor a dominant narrative and serve to simplify, which reduces critical response and leads to passive consumption of media.

    One might interpret the popularity of ambiguous stories as culture’s method of accepting America’s blunders abroad as well as our declining global position. Ambiguous stories force me to level out what I think is moral, or what I would do in a situation.

    And on the topic of Song of Fire and Ice, there are a group of characters I’ve been rooting for since the beginning (Jon, Arya) but there are others that I’ve come around to like (Jaime) or dislike (Jorah). I think that’s the best part of Game of Thrones, and is one of my favorite aspects of any story: when I’m convinced to change my opinion of a character.

    Finally, I don’t think there’s any shortage of moral stories. The vast majority of Hollywood movies are moral stories, with simple messages about relationships and success. Books allow for more depth and dynamism, thus they naturally gravitate to gray characters and story arcs.

  15. EM and Samuel, I am not saying there’s no room for gray areas. But I think the questions of overall morality and what is right and wrong should be asked. If the world sees it differently that should be examined. I have never met anyone, and I know a number of Athiests and Agnostics, who doesn’t have standards of overall wrong and right. As I pointed out, there are just some behaviors which are generally seen as evil no matter the motivating belief system or lack thereof. I stand by that. I have travelled extensively in countries all over the world as well, encountering, dialoguing with and examining culture and the same has been true there as well.

    Sam: I know a lot about othering and it is a risk but it can be avoided as well with smart writing and still have the moral arc I’m talking about. As for Hollywood, I am talking literature not movies. But Hollywood, as one who worked and lived there for a number of years, does as much to perpetuate moral ambiguity and promote that as anyplace else.

  16. Clarification: I know people who THINK they have no standard of right and wrong. But when you sit down and talk with them about it, giving examples of various situations and behaviors, you can always find things they believe are just wrong under any circumstances. Which means there’s an absolute at work in their mind. It’s actually interesting to have those dialogues. People’s self-perceptions and internal cultures can be fascinating and human beings have an infinite capacity to convince themselves of things they think they believe but don’t always play out to the ideal they envision.

    But anyway, my point in this as I said before is that moral abiguity as a sole tapesty from which to tell stories leaves me lacking. I think there is room for it. I live in a world of grays myself. But I think there’s always an overarching moral tapestry at work. And I don’t think that requires a dominant religious faith. At the same time, I also believe examining those things is important as part of storytelling, not necessarily in every book. But I certainly don’t want to see stories which ignore it continue to be the dominant form.

  17. James Clark says

    I’ve enjoyed this discussion so far, but would like to add in my two cents if I may: I think the moral vs. immoral/amoral argument is actually a comment on viewpoint and how contemporary novels are written.

    When the “camera” is over the shoulder of the character and close enough to hear their thoughts, moral relativism is very common. It’s simply because in developing a compelling character around which to hang a story, you need the internal conflicts uncertainties and flaws to make the story move along and retain interest. Also, in this style of writing, massive success can only really be understood through the lens of the prospect of abject failure – the victory in the character’s eyes, as part of the character’s arc, trumps the larger, more abstract moral question. The attitude of the writer in this instance can only really affect the tuning of the character (jaded, but not evil; bad to the bone; shining knight) and how powerful the story will be as a result.

    The other option is a more omniscient view. The character is polarising the morals and ethics of those around him by his very actions and existence. You have greater scope to suggest that there *is* a right way, that there definitely is a wrong way too and the story tells of the progress of the character from one to the other.

    In context of this discussion, George R.R. Martin writes often in the first style; you may find his character’s distasteful or morally repugnant, be annoyed when they succeed through immoral means, but you can never deny that his characters are truthful to their own morality. They may doubt, they may change and grow, but the Jaimes, the Roberts, the Littlefingers of the story all follow their internal logic, their own guiding road to their “good” outcome. They are aware of their failings, but interesting, functioning characters who nonetheless behave as well as they can in the circumstances they find themselves in.

    Lord of the Rings is very much of the second style, as the book is concerned with the world more than the characters themselves. You see the good and evil, the purity and the corruption playing out in many struggles across the simply polarised battlegrounds. However, should the book have been written in the Game of Thrones style, you have so many of the same things happening. Boromir, Saruman, Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, Denethor and Elrond all believe that their actions are justly motivated, for the good of their peoples for the most part. Taken as part of a character novel and contrasted only against each other they would all be as varied and morally ambiguous as the actors in Martin’s tale.

    I don’t think moral ambiguity is a reflection of the times at all. People still understand that Shining Knights are good and Evil Sorcerors are bad, but in a field of literature where the viewpoints are so closely tied in with character at the moment, the stories told of these tales are simply less engaging than those told of more complicated, more truthful characters, even if they do occasionally err. From a third person limited point of view, in my opinion, there is less to relate to in a paragon on goodness than the story of the drunk who risks his life to run into a burning building.

    If the style changes, maybe the moral standpoint will do too.

  18. Well, I agree in part, James, that POV definitely affects this. And LOTR is a milieu story, rather than a character story. The world is the focus and a character in the story as much as any “character.” To some degree, GRRM’s world is as well but another aspect is the number of POVs and choices of those characters. When you examine the world through one set of eyes, you get one perspective. When you examine it through multiple POV, you get another perspective because as you see the varied morality of the characters, you begin to wonder about the context of their world. How does their individual morality fit with that of their society or their world at large. And even in GRRM’s SOIAF, there are some characters who are more good than others. I thought Ned Stark was pretty much a good guy. Jon Snow is fairly good as well overall. Just two examples. There are others. Other characters are more evil, like Cerci. Tyrion is somewhere in between. And so in examining the world from the various characters and their morality, you get a sense of an overarching morality. Which is the picture which prompted me to say in the post that it’s not a world I’d particularly like to inhabit myself. But even antagonists are heroes of their own stories. They believe they are doing things the best way and they operate by their own code. So to that degree, obviously, the individual POV shows us the morality under which a character operates. I just tend to ask larger questions about the moral structure of societies. Are there things which are inherently evil–rape, incest, murder? Are there others which people waiver on depending on context–torture (is it inherently evil or does it serve the ends at times), killing in war context, etc? (Giving limited examples there are more). And does the society in the book have those shared perspectives or doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I’d personally rather prefer to see some overarching moral structure rather than total ambiguity. Ambiguity within individual characters is not what I’m addressing in the post. I think currently the trend is to create more worlds and situations which operate without that structure. I question whether such a world really exists. But also, I am not necessarily arguing it has to agree with my own assumptions about what that overarching structure should be. But I do think it’s an important context that poses important, valuable questions.

  19. In light of Cora’s trackback, I’ll add my response to her here: My main issue is that all societies have overlying moral standards which have developed as consensus over time. Characters may individually violate or reject that. They may wrestle to live within those standards. But the standards still have to be reckoned with. I’ve traveled all over the world studying cultures and have yet to find any truly morally ambiguous one. The society’s moral code may not line up with Judeo-Christian ideas or even resemble the one in the U.S. But it exists. And everyone in the society has to wrestle with that in making decisions, etc. When characters operate with no seeming regard for those concerns, to me, it’s unrealistic. I do prefer the moral compass as well for some of the other reasons you stated, including a more hopeful message, etc. But above all, I struggle with believing a world can ever really be ambiguous.

  20. I found myself divided over this–both wanting to agree that fantasy can be a ground upon which to argue for more ethical society and to say that I really don’t need my every book to lecture me about how to behave or to simplify morality to a particular set of precepts that I must accept. Ambiguity can allow for the reader to make decisions rather than the author (and many fantasies that have strong but outdated moral viewpoints are also difficult to read and enjoy).

    But…I like the idea that we can win through to a brighter tomorrow, even if it nullifies some of the beauty of the works created today.

  21. Chrissa, I’m not suggesting they lecture. I’m suggesting they wrestle with the larger picture of societal moral expectations which always exist.

  22. Thanks for a great article. I just wish you had a list of fantasy and sci-fi novels that also eschewed moral relativism and anti-heroes. It was cool when I was in high school, but fifteen years later the Sephiroths and George RR Martins of the world are getting predictable and boring.

    Give me heroes to look up to any day. It’s just a shame they’re nearly impossible to find anymore.

    • I wish there were a list of less grim-dark modern fantasy novels as well but there are a few that I know of and really love: Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones are great fantasy adventure reads with good heroes, in my opinion.

  23. Great write up. As I like to say, moral ambiguity/relativism sounds great until someone’s pointing a gun at your head. Then murder is definitely wrong. That said, many of the characters my stories feature live in this world of moral relativism. Part of the fun for me comes from seeing them negotiate tough choices and struggle to make their way in the absence of a definitive compass. Sometimes they make it, more often than not they do not. I like to think that even when confused about our moral choices, our ability to love unconditionally–or at least that potential–eventually shines a light on the “right path.” BTW, I’ve read all 5 thus far released Fire and Ice books, and while it’s great story-telling (OK, book 4 faltered a bit), I agree with you: in the end it feels empty and aimless. I doubt the grand finale will change that impression.

  24. Human beings are morally gray. We always have been and we’ll always be that way. The fact that so many people have difficulty in accepting moral ambiguity in fiction makes me wonder how illusional humanity truly is.


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