Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Moral & Ethical Writing


It's a topic that's been blogged about before. It's likely come up in your own writing; I know it has in mine. The nagging question:

"Can I write this in my book, even though the subject matter is totally against my moral or ethical code?"

Let's face it, the world is full of people with a hodge-podge of belief systems on what is right, wrong and entertaining. There's no way for us as writers to entertain everyone. We are bound to step on some toes along the way, because as I said above, there are so many variations of what is acceptable in entertainment. But what about our own toes? I've found myself writing a story that, in my opinion, has an amazing concept, but gnaws at the back of my mind because it touches on some spiritual issues that are blatantly against my own belief system. I try to reason: "it's just fiction," but when I see some people take certain fiction a bit too literally, as is the case with maybe Dan Brown's hit novel (no I'm not plugging it here) I find myself asking, "but what if people try to take my story too literally?" It begs the question, "Can I write this in my book, even through the subject matter is totally against my moral/ethical code?"

I can't determine whether you should or shouldn't bypass your conscience just to get a good book written, but in my case I will have to figure out what's best for me. So how about you guys? Have you written or would you write about something that is fundamentally against your belief system or ethical code?

21 comments:

Jonathon Arntson said...

I think what you decide to include in your book is just part of your voice as a writer. I think this because sometimes it's not what you chose to talk about, it's how you chose to talk about it.

Of course, what you include will be judged, as many people do with Dan Brown, but maybe not always in the way you think.

If one of your characters or the narrator is homophobic, Catholic, Jewish, racist, a vegan, people will not assume you are too.
You may find yourself gaining fans you may not have wanted...but that's bound to happen no matter what.

That's one of the purposes of the copyright page, "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters,..." Readers should be reminded of this from time to time.

Happy scandalizing.

Bane of Anubis said...

I don't think you should write something that goes against your belief system, but you'll definitely have characters/storylines that fly in the face of your moral codes, and you should, b/c that's where tension lies and relatability (assuming your moral codes are in line w/ most everyone else's, which I imagine they are).

Lydia Sharp said...

You can say "it's fiction" all you want, but I guarantee you, sooner or later, it's going to bug at your conscience. (Don't ask me how I know that.) But that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't write it, or if you've already written it, that you shouldn't get it published. In the end, you have to be true to your characters and THEIR story, as in, IT'S NOT YOU. Still difficult, though. And you can't stop other people from holding certain opinions. If those people are friends and family, things can get sticky for you because, well duh, you're the one that wrote it and your name is on the cover. Tough decision. Definitely.

Candice said...

I think it should be treated as anything else in life. Should you bypass your conscience ever?

My personal opinion is that you have to look at the intent behind what you're writing. I always ask myself if my writing glamorizes destructive or immoral behaviors. Would it influence somebody to make poor choices? I am especially conscious of this since I write for teens. I never want to have the responsibility of having persuaded a teen to engage in a risky behavior because of how I made it seems normal or even desirable in my own books. That's not to say that you can't deal with heavy subjects, but you have to do it responsibly. The easiest way I find to keep myself in line is to ask the question, what are my kids going to think when they read my books? Are they going to hear me saying one thing at the dinner table and then something totally different when they pick up one of my books? I think having integrity means keeping every aspect of your life in line with your knowledge of right and wrong. Is anybody perfect at that, no! And everybody has there own definition of what is right an wrong. But I think the famous quote in Hamlet applies:

"This above all, to thine own self be true,And it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans't not then be false to any man "

David J. West said...

Great topic Void, to me whatever I write is in league with my conscience, but that doesn't mean the characters are. So many great stories are related from a villians perspective or even just allows them to spout their particular motivations-I have my villians do it all the time and while I try to put myself into their shoes to see why they do what they do-I certainly don't have to agree with them.

A lot of this is why antagonists are a so fun to write. And even on the other hand I have written hero's who don't believe the same as me. In a novelette (I am hoping to get an acceptance on any day now) the hero firmly believes fat econtrols all things and what happens is predestined. I absolutely do not believe that myself, but it was right for the character so its in the story.

With the ethical question for me at least, it boils down to, Am I going to write anything I am ashamed of-NO. IF it would I wouldn't write it.

You have to make your own choice on what you want to brand yourself as. Maybe thats why some writers have multiple psedonyms. I'm gonna stick to one.

Charles Gramlich said...

Being a horror writer, I don't think it's possible for me to avoid that. There are some things I haven't done, though, and wouldn't feel comfortable doing.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

In my stories I write about topics or situations that I may or not agree with. It's like you said, it's fiction. The characters aren't me. If they were it would make for a boring story. Write whatever makes your story come to life. Ethical or unethical. Controversial or not. :)

DL Hammons said...

If it serves the story, then I would have no problem doing this. There will be those who will question your belief system based upon things you bring out in your book, but I wouldn't worry about them.

Voidwalker said...

Jonathon: Scandals are fun, but if you belive in a religious/spiritual way and try to write into a story something that blatently opposes your own view, it can become very hard to do. I still struggle with one of my stories, even though I believe it has a killer premise.

Bane: It's true, I'll have characters that aren't doing things that I'd approve of, but I think it would be more difficult to write something that makes me feel uneasy. Some kinds of uneasy are do-able, some are not.

Lydia: I had to stop writing this particular WIP that caused me to have some moral dilemnas, mostly because I felt it would influence young adults to believe their lives weren't worthwhile and the choices they make wouldn't really matter. The storyline had a great background, but could have some potential influencial problems.

Candice: "That's not to say that you can't deal with heavy subjects, but you have to do it responsibly." You pretty much summed up how I feel about it!

David: "Am I going to write anything I am ashamed of-NO. IF it would I wouldn't write it." Good point. I think this is another great way to look at it.

Charles: I think the Horror genre exempts you from any moral dilemnas.

Karen: I don't mind putting situations that are unethical in my work, but I am worried that "meaning of life" type of writing in my stuff could trip up some individuals. I don't want to be the reason any whack-doodles start up a new religion based on some fiction I wrote lol.

DL: I guess I just need to learn to let go and realize that I can't be responsible for every person who reads my writing. Good point.

Julie said...

Great post! Honestly, I think that writing something that goes against your moral or ethical code is just another challenge you face as a writer.
How you work through it is all that matters.
I actually enjoy writing characters that don't believe in the things I believe in because it helps me step into someone else's shoes, thus keeping an open mind. It's when I can help my characters work through something or ultimately change for the better that I know I have succeeded.

I have a story on the backburner(for other reasons)whose MC is a firm atheist, whereas I am very much not. My goal is to get her to believe in something, even if it's not what I believe in. I love her whether or not she follows my beliefs.

So I say write whatever you feel. You will be judged no matter what you say because no two people believe the same things. It's just not possible to make everyone happy!
Just make it work for you.

CKHB said...

Tricky. Writing "about" something isn't the deal breaker for me, it's whether the book would seem to support or endorse that which I am morally opposed to. I don't think I could write a book where it ends up "teaching a lesson" that is contrary to my beliefs.

And I am now DYING to know which issues in particular you are grappling with!

jake.adelstein said...

I'm curious as to what you think of my book (TOKYO VICE) because it gets into the question of moral and ethical living as well as the problems involved in decisions on what to write and how it will affect your sources. I debate many of the choices I have made as a reporter and spent a great amount of time trying to decide what I could write and could not write in my book. I think many times the act of writing something down for others to see involves great moral choices, whether that is in fiction or in fact.
I struggle with those problems all the time, more now than lately.

Voidwalker said...

Julie: Indeed this is one of the many challenges we writers will face. I personally have gone back and forth on one of my novels, because it enters a gray area for me on a spiritual matter.

CKHB: I agree, I wouldn't write a book which emphasizes or glamorizes something which I'm utterly against. The issues in my novel that I've struggled with revolve around the worth of life's choices. I may share the concept here on the blog if I abandon the idea of writing the story, but unless I decide, I can't share too much without giving away more than I'm willing to at this point. :)

Jake: Wow, I'm honored to have you visiting my blog. I love hearing from published authors, but I think you'd be the first published author that I've read some work by. I am about halfway through your book and am fascinated with it. One, because you delve into the Japanese culture in a very personal way. Two, because you are shedding light on the amazingly interesting side of being an investigative journalist. About 3 year ago, I visited Japan and stayed in a Gaijin house near the area of Shinjuku. I went because I have loved Japan since I was a little boy and I made it my personal goal to go there someday. I made it happen and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Your book is bringing me back! As for the ethical concerns for your writing, it can be a bit more dangerous for someone like you. In fiction, there's no fear of retaliation if you expose a character. In real life, things can get ugly real quick if you get a bit too personal. I think you did a superb job. I'm planning on doing a review here soon. I'd love to have you back to see it.

jjdebenedictis said...

I'm here via CKHB's link. What an interesting topic and post!

I think if you write a book that goes against your principles, it will show. You won't be entirely convincing.

But I believe if you have one character who lives in a manner that is against your principles, you can pull that off. Getting into another person's mindset is something a writer can do, but telling a story that feels wrong will probably trip you up at some point.

Not to mention, it's hard to pull together the motivation to write 80,000 words if you don't believe in what you're saying passionately.

Diana Paz said...

Wow this is a great topic. I think, because we (you and I, and most of our readers at this point), are unpublished, we have more freedom. Focus on writing the best book you possibly can, and once you are finished you will have grown from the experience, and maybe you'll see how to revise it to be more in line with the view you want to share with the world. If you don't do that, you may never find a way to finish the book. If you try to force the story to be something it isn't at this stage, your story will not come out; at least that's been my experience, and I end up stuck. Let your muse run free in this first draft. If you find you can't change it later, then don't query it. It won't be a waste of time no matter what, because every book you write will make you a stronger writer.

(Check it out, I plugged back in twice for your blog!)

catwoods said...

Never. My writing is a reflection of me and how I feel about the world. While there are topics and genres I love (thriller/murder/mayhem/mystery) I would write about this in a way that doesn't compromise my innate morals.

Michele Emrath said...

This is a moral quagmire. You can hide behind an immoral character, of course. But I think the heart of your novel has to follow your own belief system. If you write a book that is sensational for the purpose of making money, I suppose that makes you somewhat amoral. It doesn't sound like you could be comforatble with that, and I applaud your moral boundaries.

Interesting post. Congrats on catching the eye of Adelstein.

Michele
SouthernCityMysteries

GhostFolk.com said...

I write (fiction) to learn, n ot to teach. If a topic interests me, on either side of the moral line, I would write it to learn perhaps something about it.

That said, there are some things that don't interest mie because they are morally reprehensible to me... rather than something I simply don't agree with or understand.

Girl with One Eye said...

Void, I am playing vacation catchup so forgive me for commenting so late. This is a good topic to bring up. But I have opposite the problem, it's not if I could or would write against my belief system it is should I write this because it may be against the majorities belief system. Which has me scared because I think I am an awesome parent/role model but when I write I want to open secret doors inside myself that I would be terrified the general public would hang me for. There are parts of me that I can quiet and hush for so long before I bust out with this YA novel wrapped in "Do not break the seal unless you want the truth" warning label. Kind of like Madonna's controversial book in 1992 after her Erotica album. OKay TMI...sorry but good topic. Anyway, good topic.

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