Being a Better Writer: Author Morals and Story Theme

So, right now, I think I may be able to guess what many of you are thinking, which is, upon looking at the title: Hey, didn’t we just read this like a week or two ago? To which I say, yes,  almost.

For those of you who weren’t yet thinking, but now have looked up and noticed the similarities in the title, yes, it’s almost the same topic. In fact, there’s only a single word of difference.

See, a few weeks ago, I wrote an article about contrasting an author’s morals versus a character’s morals, talking about some of the difficulties new authors—or really any author—could run into while writing a story that contained characters with viewpoints or beliefs that disagreed with the authors. And, though you should probably go read that article if you want the highlights, the conclusion was that you shouldn’t be afraid to write characters who are not you that you disagree with, though there was the additional caveat that you should consider theme, and whether or not that character will detract from the theme you’re instilling into your work.

Then, a short time later, I wrote another post, this one discussing theme, message, and the difference between the two. It discussed how theme could become message, how message could distract from an otherwise good book, and how you could help keep the balance between having a theme without becoming message fiction.

Well, today we’re combing those two topics, bringing everything back around for another look. Because we’ve talked about characters having different views/morals than an author, and how that’s okay. We’ve also talked about the difference between theme and message, and how to try and hit that balance between “there’s a point” and “this is the point and you will accept it.” So now, with both of those in mind, we’re going to blend  them together a bit and tackle a slightly different question (to wit, two word’s worth of difference, which can go a long way).

Today, we’re going to talk about author morals once more, but this time how they relate to the theme of your story, the morals that it presents and ascribes to. We’ve already declared that it’s okay to have a character that you personally disagree with, but what about a theme or a moral? Should that same logic applied to characters that you disagree with also extend to the very themes of what you write?

Some of you, I gather, have already reached an answer. Or to be more accurate, I should likely say answers. See, the reason that this is a topic in and of itself is because right now, in the US particularly, but likely extending in small amounts to other writing regions as well, there is a “progressive” movement that argues quite vocally that “Yes, an author should write themes—or with these movements, more accurately messages—that they disagree with.” They use a variety of arguments, from “It’s the author’s duty to write what the public wants, and we’re the ‘public,’ so therefore they need to write what we want to read” to “An author is only limiting themselves if they only write morals that they support”—usually followed by a list of their “demands” for what the author should write instead.

Now, if that sounds inflammatory, well, it is. Because I’m being direct. A lot of these groups will coach their words in order to sound less demanding or more appealing, or make it sound as if an author who doesn’t write contrary to personal beliefs is somehow backwards or failing to provide any great “good” or “contribution” for society. Unless, of course the author happens to have personal beliefs that align with the beliefs these groups argue for, in which case they are already “enlightened” (yes, I have seen that exact term used) and are to be praised.

Now, in case you haven’t figured it out already, or perhaps haven’t guessed, what these groups tend to ask for is a little self-serving. Okay, a lot self-serving. Many of them are really just making a stink that authors should be writing for them what they will not write on their own, or perhaps what they write but cannot sell. Or they’re trying to loudly foster support for their own cause. Regardless, they argue that authors need to write contrary to their beliefs … as long as that contrary ideal lines up with whatever their own little collective holds as their beliefs.

Sound fishy and, frankly, self-serving? Oh, absolutely. It is entirely self-serving behavior (and has quite a bit in common with the type of detractor that makes a fuss, demanding that you change something, in order to exercise power over someone).

But … especially for new authors, their arguments can sound persuasive. A new author can be told things in support of this idea such as that it’s important for an author to write something that opposes their own personal beliefs because it’s a learning experience that will broaden their skill as an author. Or that it will appeal to the public more since it’s an “in demand” topic. Or that it will be the newbie author’s ticket out of obscurity. “Just write this one story in support of this” they will be told. “It’s what really sells, and people will flock out of the woodwork to support you.”

Point is, there’s a million variations on this idea, all pointing towards one single, inescapable “fact” for a lot of young writers: That they “need” to write stories that present a theme or message that they personally do not agree with in order to be a success, or be anything more than a wanna-be. And there is a lot of pressure on young authors to do this.

Which is why we’re talking about it today. A lot of young authors face it, and many of them have no clue what to do when presented with such a conundrum. So here’s what we’re going to do. First, I’m going to talk about the comments above, the ideas that are being thrown at young authors that they need to write “progressive” (which is a fully maleable term that usually ends up meaning whatever the speaker wants), for the “right audience,” that they need to write something they don’t agree with to become better, etc. Then, after that, we’re going to talk about actually writing with regard to ones own morals.

So the first one. All those ideas, suggestions you’ll hear, or perhaps have already heard, that you need to write something that you personally don’t agree with in order to “make it,” “be a real author,” whatever. All that stuff. The whole lot.

It’s crap.

That’s it. All of it. It’s self-serving on behalf of the individuals doing the demanding. Like pointed out earlier, they only make these kind of cries concerning what they think is moral/the message … and interestingly enough, don’t ask any of their own group to practice what they preach and write something they object to.

All this stuff about how its better for you to write things you disagree with, etc, it’s all bunk.

Got it? Okay, good. Now let’s move on, and actually discuss writing things that agree with your own morals.

Now, a reminder, we’re talking about the theme of the story here, not the morals of individual characters. How is this any different?

Well, let’s go back to the example I used in Author Morals and Character Morals. In that article, I brought up the story Ripper from the collection Unusual Events. Now, Ripper is about a serial killer. From one’s perspective, in fact. It’s a short story (possibly edging on novelette) that follows the Lady Amacitia Varay as she tracks, intending to kill in brutal fashion, her next target.

Now, I brought that story up because I wanted to give a demonstration of “You as an author don’t have to agree with the morals of a character.” Because I certainly didn’t find any of my views aligning with Varay as I wrote her. She’s a sociopathic killer and unabashed man-hater. Her view of life is incredibly sexist, violent, and horrifying. I didn’t agree with her at all.

However, and here’s where we go a step further into today’s topic, neither does the story. If it could be said that there was a theme to Ripper, it most certainly wouldn’t be that “killing men and torturing them is good because …” despite this being the point of view that Varay herself hold. But the story itself presents Varay and the characters around her to a degree that you’re never once under the impression that she’s right. In fact, the story argues the opposite, despite Varay’s opinion otherwise.

So while Varay herself subscribes to one moral belief, the rest of the story (it’s characters, narrative, and plot) do not. The morals of the story, despite the viewpoint character, contest that she is wrong.

See what I’m getting at? You can write characters that you disagree with without changing the theme of your story or contradicting it (and these things need always not be in conflict either, I merely used Ripper as a good example of how far it could be taken). Moral theme and character morals are not the same thing.

So then, that out of the way … why should we worry about the morals of our theme?

Well, first, because we need to have one. Every story needs to have a theme of some kind, or there simply won’t be any substance for a reader to dig into. And, as I’ve written about before, you can’t simply go for the “everyone is right there is no wrong” approach. You cannot stand for something if you hold that nothing is correct or worth standing for.

Now, does this mean that you need to sit down and puzzle your theme out with everything you write? Well, no. Plenty of writers just want to tell a good story. But note that in writing a story, regardless of whether or not you planned for such, a theme will present itself (and if you’re lucky, legions of English students will be forced to guess what their teacher wants it to be, thus securing your financial future). It will happen if you’re writing a decent story, has to happen, because theme is an element of a good story.

Now, getting into whether or not you should write one that you agree with … I’ve already stated that the usual “reasons” given for writing against your own morals and ideas are junk. So let’s talk a little bit about why.

Were you ever, in your life, forced to account for something that you didn’t rightfully do? Or worse, something you didn’t agree with? Maybe a friend broke something and you took the blame despite your assurances otherwise, and you had to apologize for it? Or you were assigned a school project or assignment that you didn’t want to do, or didn’t agree with (and, small note here, but a single assignment designed to test reasoning by arguing against your own points is not the same as writing a book for a living)? It’s not easy. Certainly we sometimes learn things—again, the aforementioned “testing reasoning” which is why we give assignments like that to students—but it’s never something that we particularly enjoy.

Now jump to writing fiction. What is more likely for you to finish or put effort into: The story that you enjoy and find yourself agreeing with the themes of? Or the one that you don’t like because you don’t agree with it? If you’re like most people, you’re going to work harder on the thing you enjoy, the thing you like.

And in truth, what “people” say about writing the contrary opinion is bunk. There is value and experience to be gained in writing about something we don’t agree with … but it’s one thing to write a character we don’t agree with, another to “force” out opinions aside on the matter and lie about what we consider a thematic “truth.” You can find the same viewpoints in writing a character you disagree with without changing the theme of your story to be something you find disagreeable.

Ultimately, if you’re going to write a story, the theme should be something that you agree with, something that you can get behind. Because that will inspire you to write the best possible story, rather than one you simply phone in because you really don’t agree with the theme on display. Write a story you care about. Don’t fall into the trap of writing something you dislike or disagree with simply because someone else assures you that that’s what they want to see—let them write that story. You need to write the story that you find enjoyment in. And you’re not going to enjoy something you don’t find common ground in.

Worse, today’s politicized climate in the world of writing has created a situation where, yes, you’re going to find people demanding, arguing, shouting, etc, that you should write a story that supports their moral, political, or other ideal, stance. Even if that stance has absolutely nothing to do with your work.

Don’t fall afoul of the trap. Write something that isn’t going to keep you from resting easy—or in some extreme scenario, lose sleep. Write what you want to write.

Author morals are not character morals, but character morals are not the theme’s morals. You don’t have to write something you don’t like, regardless of what some random person on the internet might say.

Write something you’re going to put all your effort into, something that you want to write. It doesn’t have to be a political stand, or a tract, or even a message. It just has to be a story that you want to write.

You don’t need to write something you don’t agree with. So instead … write what works for you. Note that this can mean you write themes you disagree with. Maybe you enjoy that.

But don’t let someone else tell you what your theme should be, and don’t be convinced that you must write something you don’t agree with.

Write what you want to.

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Author Morals and Story Theme

  1. I can’t understand writing to someone else’s specifications, which is why I’m a good indie writer.

    The only other caution I’d add is that the more preaching you ultimately try to pack into your stories (written to support YOUR worldview), the more entertaining you need to learn to be. People are very prickly about supporting and reading fiction that is preachy. They shouldn’t notice what you’re trying to say. Except at the subconscious level. That’s where you leave the time bombs.


  2. […] This can be harder than it sounds, too. For starters, in order to really approach things from multiple angles, that means you as a creator need to give serious consideration to other viewpoints and look into them. Which … is hard. As a creator, this may mean that you’re writing about views and ideas that don’t mirror your own, or that you disagree with. You may even need to explore in-depth some of these arguments and argue for them in a way that makes it clear the character voicing them truly believes them—no easy task for some. This is difficult … but it’s also part of writing, and we’ve spoken of it here before on this blog. Twice, in fact. […]


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