Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Morally Neutral?

Good protagonists come from morally neutral places and move toward relatable goals, not agendas. That is why the best stories appeal to large groups of people across many beliefs, faiths and moral codes.”

I saw the statement above in the comments of a blog. It’s quite the statement. I’m having a hard enough time figuring out what it means and a harder time figuring out if I agree. I think I don’t. First, I’m not sure what is meant by “morally neutral”. I suppose that means the protagonist doesn’t know what he believes. Morals are essentially the collective beliefs of society concerning what is right and wrong. On any moral issue, there are extremes on either side and almost no one who is neutral, but the statement above implies that our protagonist should be one of those people.

Next, the comment mentions “relatable goals, not agendas”. I don’t see any reason why a protagonist can’t have an agenda. For that matter, I don’t see why an author can’t have an agenda. Where it becomes a problem is when the author starts making leaps in his argument. A story is basically an argument that author is making to support his theme. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a classic example of a book with an agenda, put an end to slavery. What made it so powerful was that the author stated her argument well. Instead of just showing slavery as a terrible thing, she also showed the good side of slavery. That was necessary because she needed to silence the critics. It is a debate tactic. Rather than let you opponent point at the flaws in your argument, you bring up all the things you think he will mention and point out their flaws before he can bring them up. What you are left with is a book that shows that while there were some good things about slavery, the bad things were so much worse that slavery needed to end.

My claim is that good protagonists are about to die. A protagonist is at a place where change must take place or he will die. That could be because he is in a morally bad place. Or it could be that he is suffering because of someone else who is in a morally bad place. Death is caused by sin, so if a protagonist is on the verge of death, someone has to be sinning. So, if the story is about the protagonist overcoming whatever it is that is killing him, then every story is about overcoming sin.

That’s what makes me think that the second statement is wrong. A large part of why there are so many different religions is because of different beliefs about what sin is and how to overcome sin. The Church of England was started because a king didn’t like what the Catholic Church taught concerning divorce and remarriage. When the very essence of what a novelist is doing is writing about sin and overcoming it, he isn’t going to please everyone. For some people, overcoming sin means killing all the bad guys. For others, it means catching the killer. In other books, it means finding a way to forgive. And in some books it means walking the aisle at church and asking Jesus to come into your heart. If the book happens to be written by someone who sees religion as the sin, it might mean the character turning his back on religion.

Whatever the author sees as the sin and whatever it takes to overcome the sin, it is the author’s responsibility to state is case well. Show us why another solution won’t work. Show us why your solution is the best one. Or show us why your solution is the wrong one. But whatever you do, don’t just put it out there and assume we know why it must be so.