Avoiding the Morality Motif

This post is a cry for help instead of offering a solution and I would really appreciate your input. I’ll keep it short so you can spend more time commenting based on your experience as reader or writer. So, a mentor recently pointed out a habit I have writing stories that take an immoral character and spit him out having learned his lesson. I thought I was improving by not writing characters into salvation, but apparently I’m still being a little heavy on the lesson teaching and not focusing enough on story.

I think this post can be fun for both readers and writers, and I covet you to share on your experience in this.

First, my questions for readers: What are some examples of fiction you enjoyed that included a character’s moral transformation? What did you enjoy about it? How was the lesson learned portrayed? For those stories you enjoyed, how did the author avoid making you feel like you were being sat down for a lesson?

Okay, now writers: Have you gone through the same learning curve? How did you find your way around teaching a moral lesson through your character’s transformation? If you still include moral transformation, how do you do it without seeming to teach someone a lesson?

About Timothy C. Ward

Timothy C. Ward is a Hugo nominated producer for Adventures in SciFi Publishing, who has been lost, broke and surfed with sharks on the other side of the world. He now dreams of greater adventures from his keyboard in Des Moines, Iowa. This summer he released two novels: his second Sand Divers book, Scavenger: A.I., where two parents use an ancient technology to fight a reproducing A.I. while trying to resurrect their deceased infant; and Godsknife: Revolt, an apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss.

21 comments on “Avoiding the Morality Motif

  1. Well, there’s The Oath by Peretti, where he has to accept Jesus or get eaten by a dragon. That one was pretty entertaining.

    One that touched me without being annoying was Testament, by Grisham, where the lawyer hero, an alcoholic with no direction in his life, tracks down a missionary in the jungle and accepts Christ, and it helps him kick the alcohol addiction. But it’s done very subtly. I read it twice before I realized he’d had a conversion at all.

    In The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones, one of the main characters accidentally goes back in time and does three very minor things. Then when he returns to the present, he finds that those three minor things actually became the moving and shaking events for the entire book. Not quite the same as a moral lesson, though.

    When I write, I don’t try to teach my characters a lesson. I let them work through their own inner conflict. I don’t know if this is better or worse then your problem. What are you writing that makes them “learn their lesson”? Does some guy start smoking and come down with cancer? Are you writing with a moral in mind or are you just letting the characters figure things out?

    • Thanks, Kessie. I laughed at the The Oath example.

      The story I’m writing has a retired hit man who has to see the large scale ramifications of his actions to realize that his career choice was wrong. I’m teaching him a lesson by presenting the situation and temptations that are meant to reveal the end of his means.

      • Now I’m curious. How are you doing this? Showing him the family of one of his victims? How does his job affect him personally? Does he have to bump off a close family member or something?

        • I’m glad you’re curious, Kessie. Hopefully you’ll read it someday and find out. The how is the fun part 😉

          By the way, thank you everyone for your awesome encouragement and examples. I just finished another draft and am preparing to send it to my mentors.

  2. One of my favorite transformation stories is the one of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I don’t see any preachy stuff going on there. Being turned into a dragon brought him to the place where he saw exactly who he was, and wanted to change. He worked on it himself, but in the end, Aslan had to step in.

  3. Ah, and so we are the at the bane of all Christian fiction. Preachiness! This one thing is what has forced readers away in droves. For some reason, we Christians like to preach and preach hard while we are writing. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but people read fiction for entertainment. They read non-fiction for education. That tends to leave us Christian fiction writers in a bit of a quandary. How can we show God in our work without chasing our readers away with a wooden cross and holy water? Kessie and Silly Girl have it right. We use subtly. We use life in a real way that shows the lesson instead of beating our reader over the head with it. Remember this, if you are writing for a Christian market, preachy writing is singing to the choir and a bit insulting to the audience’s intelligence. But if you are writing to capture a general audience, preachy writing pisses them off. It gives and air of “I’m better than you” and “Repent, you filthy sinner.” Not quite what you want.

  4. I must ask–Is the lesson the *point* of you writing the story? Is it your motivation? Are you building your story around the lesson, instead of letting the character learn *because* of the story?

    My stories don’t always have lessons, but those that I think do tend to be more subtle. And many of them have ambiguous endings. I don’t necessarily show that the person has learned their lesson, but I at least show that *could be* their next step. Another thing we have to remember is that people often change in increments. There is rarely a complete 180-degree change. So that character need only take the first tiny step, not go from bad to good in one fell swoop.

    • The story came out of the desire to see this character realize the end of his path before he reached the end and it was too late. I agree with the incremental change theory. I’m working on showing his actions as signs of change instead of inner dialogue, which my mentors tell me is “telling.”

  5. The best example that comes to mind for me is going to sound odd, as it wasn’t in a book. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” had Eddie Valiant wasting away, spending all his money on liquor when he and his brother used to have a thriving private detective business. I absoluttely LOVE the scene where he loads his gun with “toon” bullets and they’re all dusty and old (showing how little action he’s been in recently) and then he pulls out his hip flask for “liquid encouragement”, takes a really good look at the flask, and then pours the liquor out on the street. I always want to shout, “YES!” Nobody says he won’t have some struggles with alcoholism later. Nobody assumes he’s 100% cured. But that one choice says a lot and makes us cheer.

    I hope this helps.

  6. Is he supposed to come to the conclusion that his career choice is wrong or simply feel terrible regret over his compliance with this one particular job? Because in my mind those are two separate issues. One is a shift in the characters sense of morality and the other is human reaction to consequence. The difference between repentance and regret.

    Personally my favorite sorts of characters are the rogues or the anti heroes, the ones who you don’t know what choice they’ll make until they’ve made it. Jack Sparrow comes to mind. He’s self serving to be sure, but it’s tough to say whether in giving up Davy’s Jones’ heart to Will if he’s learned a moral lesson regarding friendship and love or if that capacity was inside of him from the very beginning.

    Another character I think of is Robert the Bruce from Braveheart. Now HE had something to feel bad about and a lot to make up for. He is a sympathetic character, but betrays his own countrymen for position and power and for his fathers approval. Lots of Scotts died for that decision, including Wallace. Then he comes around in the end and leads the Scottish army against the English himself. Now it can be said the the Bruce honestly didn’t want to do any of that. His inclination was to follow Wallace as well, but he still made the choice.

    Or there’s Thor. Odin shoots his computer (so to speak) and kicks him out of Asgard for being belligerent, spoiled and vain. He thinks of nothing but his own pride and will. A few days among the humans, completely stripped of his powers does him good to see the value of others… plus he believes his father died and he can never ever return home to his friends and family, so , you know, pretty poignant catalyst for examining ones self.

    So all three of those characters evolved differently, but I think all three pull off their change without making one feel like they’ve endured some sort of lesson. And honestly, I think they pull it off because the writers AREN’T trying to teach a lesson, they’re just telling a story about interesting people (or gods) that will hopefully leave the viewers pleased.

    You know what book had a lesson in the plans that I just thought said a whole lot of fancy stuff without really saying anything? ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho. He had a plan and while it was interesting enough I suppose I left feeling ‘meh’ about the whole thing. Basically I couldn’t have cared less about the books message and was a little irritated that the whole thing was a tool for delivering it.

    A book that doesn’t offer out moarality lessons but says so much for morailty and goodness in the face of unspeakable odds is ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthay. I endured a lesson in perserverence and faithfulness and family without the book ever uttereing a word to that effect. It was simply written across the pages by means of the relationship and the choices the Man adn the Boy make.

    Anyway, people are complicated and our 180’s are usually an incredibly sloppy procedure involving multiple layers of events and choices and failures. I think unless you are using an acceptable medium for intentional morality lessons (like a fable, a parable or a fairy tale) you’d be better off forgetting the lesson completely and just writing the character as you think they’d react whether that reaction is morally upright or not. And if your unhappy with what one characters does ni the face of events you can always come up with another. That’s just my two cents.

  7. I second pretty much all that everyone else said, namely Kat’s initial question. Because that is the first thing that struck me when I read, ” I thought I was improving by not writing characters into salvation, but apparently I’m still being a little heavy on the lesson teaching …”

    Do you mean to say your story did not improve when you attempted to play down…or write down, the “salvation” of the character(s)? If so then the aforementioned salvation belongs in there, somewhere, somehow.

    I must say, there are many, many different types of writers, Tim. Some of us are aware of who we are or want to be when it comes to our writing, and some of us are not. Some write preachy and some do not. It’s a evolution* ;} in our writing journey. There is room for every kind of writer, “Christian” or not. Ask yourself:

    What kind of writer do I wish to be?
    In what way do I feel the Spirit’s nudging?
    Do I want to teach a lesson?
    Do I want the reader to make a choice on his/her own or do I want to lead him to one?
    As Kessie asked, am I writing with a moral in mind?

    Of course, we can’t be placed in a box either way, but knowing more or less what kind of writer and what kind of writing we want to put “out there” is an important step on the journey.

    Briefly, a character in my book is a guilt-ridden, apathetic alcoholic. Depression hangs over him. As time goes on however, he sees, through the eyes of another, hope and purpose. I used that other character to “teach” or rather show him, that he could be hopeful again. The character learned/is learning a lesson. HE is the one that needed to change. Not the reader.

  8. I think another facet of the preachiness problem has to do with how society tends to believe that if you have convictions, you had better keep them to yourself, because morality has become a relative, private matter. I certainly think unabashed preachiness is a sticky trap we should try to avoid, but I also think characters should have the freedom to express their convictions. I have not yet mastered this balance, but strive toward it.

  9. I have a minor character that makes a change that God has nothing to do with. He knows he has to pay for his crimes and he does help the cops out in the end. His reason is that he has a kid sister.

    My main character is full of changes going back to church and starting talking to God again is just one. I hope not to be preachy, we’ll see.

    BTW, as a Christian reader, I don’t like preachy either. I thought twice about even having a church scene but the mc needed to hear something.

  10. The first book to come to my mind is “The Lost Princess” by George MacDonald (now titled “The Wise Woman” for some odd reason). It’s the story of two girls, both spoiled but in different ways, and how one changes for the better and one changes for the worse. Of course, that’s the point of the book: telling the story of how these two little girls change and I never resented it or felt preached at. It doesn’t specifically point to God or Jesus by name but transformation definitely takes place. It’s one of my favorite books and I strive, strive, strive to be Rosamund, not Agnes.

    I also think of “The Little Prince” who left his planet to see the universe and regretted his choice in the end. You follow him to all these planets, though, and learn new thoughts with him. His decision to take the snake up on its offer is no surprise.

    Perhaps the trick is showing how certain events cause that change in attitude.

    I have a vague memory of “This Present Darkness” (I think) by Frank Peretti when the girl gets saved and all the angels gather around to worship. It didn’t seem preachy. It seemed natural.

    And, finally, Paul Baines’ “Alpha Redemption” does a nice job of showing a back-slidden man regain his faith. Some might feel preached at, but I suspect those people need a little “preaching at.” The gospel is designed to offend the sinner. That’s what it does.

  11. My Dearest Tim,

    To cry for the help of the Lord is the most admirable thing a person can do. The Lord has heard your plea and He has answered.The rest is up to you. How we handle what the Lord gives us is up to us.I am confident that you will prosper Tim. Just believe.

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