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10:39 am: Wright's Writing Corner: The Morality of Story




 

This weekend we watched a movie with the children. My children are great fun to watch movies with, because they are interested in the process of how stories work. So, I can stop the movie and talk to them about why something happened in the story and what result is expected.

 

For instance, we were watching Hotel For Dogs. In the opening, a dog longs for a man’s hotdog. The man sees this and teases the dog, offering the hot dog and yanking it away. The man is distracted, and the dog gets the dog. (That was a fun phrase to write.)

 

 We explained to the kids that stories for children operate around an unspoken morality. The dog wanting something that is not his—wrong. If the dog had taken the hotdog at this point, he would have been in the wrong. The man teasing the dog—more wrong. Now, when the dog gets the hotdog, the viewer is on his side.


But when we say “moral” and “wrong” we are not talking about laws, courts, and sins. We are talking about something much more important to the watching/reading public.


Audience sympathy.

 

 

 

 

The morality of story is not a matter of allegories or morality tales, meant to instruct the humble. But rather, the laws of storytelling by which one grabs or fails to grab the audience’s sympathy, to get the audience on the side of your character.

 

Not a feel-good agenda, but a relentless master before whom all storytellers must bow.

 

A hungry dog…many people sympathize. But it the dog steals a man’s lunch, some viewers lose sympathy. If the man is shown to be mean, sympathy for the dog increases a hundred fold. Now, we’re all on his side when he gets away with his delicious treat.

 

All of us? No. Of course not. Nothing can gain everyone’s sympathy. Some people just will not like a dog, no matter what you have him do. Some people are in a contrary mood, and what normally might gain favor just annoys them…but in this case, the targeted audience was children. Very few children are so jaded they can’t enjoy a good story about a dog.

 

The morality of stories has a relentless logic to it, a logic that cannot be changed by politics or personal persuasions. It just is what it is. However, the moment you understand it, you can make it work for you, get it to do almost anything…like make children sympathetic to a dog that steals a man’s lunch.

 

In fact, once you understand what makes a character sympathetic, you can make even really unsavory characters sympathetic…just by making sure that, to the audience, their side seems justified.

 

Some people complain about sculpting a plot around the logic of the morality of stories. They feel it will make the story too predictable. There are several answers to this:

 

One: Not to children. They’ve never seen it before. But they do have a sense of right and wrong. This sense allows their sympathies to be engaged, even if they don’t understand why.

 

Two:  Predictability can be enjoyable. A romance reader wants the story to end happily. A child wants a fairytale to turn out the way he expects. Yet, often the audience wants to see bad punished, good triumph, and little dogs run off with grown men’s hotdogs.

 

Three: Following the logic of the morality of story is not the same as anticipating the outcome of the plot. Writers have tremendous leeway with how they use the elements that make up the fundamental building blocks of stories. As I said above, once they understand the rationale, they can make nearly anything sympathetic. 

 

Four:  An author can choose not to stick with the “formula”. Does this mean their story will suck? Not at all! It just means that the audience, however large, will be smaller than it might have been. But, they can do a better job if they are aware of the price they are paying than if they do not.

 

One example is Shrek. The authors there turned fairytales on their head…but they still followed the laws of making characters sympathetic to make their ogre anti-hero appealing. (Everyone sympathizes with a grumpy guy having his peace invaded. ;-)

 

Another example is in my novel, Prospero Lost. The main character, Miranda, is not sympathetic. She is cool and distant, and some readers do not like her because of this. If I had followed more closely the logic of how to make a character sympathetic, I would not have alienated those readers …but then, Miranda’s redemption, once she finally learns better in later volumes, would not have been as great either.

 

It’s a risky trade-off. The whole audience will be smaller than it might have been, but, God willing, those who keep reading will be rewarded with a more memorable story.

 

Of course, I could have avoided all those lost readers if I had just opened my book with a rascally dog stealing a hotdog from the icy Miranda. Then, the dog could have gone on to save Prospero, probably with the help of a couple of mangy kids. 

Would have made millions.

 



Comments

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From:damcphail
Date:September 9th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
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Very nice! I enjoyed this very much. Don't know how much I will retain in the heat of writing, but very well thought out and presented.

Kudos! ;) D- (yes, I'm being lazy ;)

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From:bojojoti
Date:September 9th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
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I didn't realize how finely honed a child's sense of justice is until I had our children.
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 9th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
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For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy. G. K. Chesterton
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From:bojojoti
Date:September 9th, 2009 10:04 pm (UTC)
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What a wonderful quote. Thank you for sharing.
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From:brni
Date:September 9th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
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"Prospero's Pooch." I like it. :)

One of the things I've been playing with in my own fiction has been precisely this, but in reverse. Subverting sympathies, letting the "hero" be a little monstrous (which is to say, letting her/him be human). Seeing how good I can make the protagonist and still have the reader dislike her/him at the end, or the opposite - how much evil can my hero do and still be liked? There's elements of this in both of my Bad-Ass Faeries stories.

(which is probably why I don't write a lot of children's stories)



Edited at 2009-09-09 04:04 pm (UTC)
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
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I nearly included more info on the stories that break the mold, but decided that was another post. (Care to write a guest post?)

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From:brni
Date:September 9th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
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Hm. I could give it a try. Doing a lot of traveling this week (mostly to N. VA, home of The Internet and also Surveillance). I'll see what I can pull together and let you know over the weekend.

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From:maradydd
Date:September 9th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
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Hey, I've done a piece where Lovecraftian ghouls are genuinely the good guys. (As, I would argue, Lovecraft himself did in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, doing a bit of that subversion himself.) Contrasting instinctual morality with institutional morality makes for interesting, subtle, but powerful conflict.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
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I almost talked about Shrek in the above article...the authors there did a good job of making an ogre sympathetic. It's a similar idea.

How did your story turn out?
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From:agilebrit
Date:September 9th, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC)
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*nods* It's interesting how the ideas of "right" and "wrong" can evolve in the telling of a story. My protag (points at icon) is a married man stuck in an untenable situation with a woman not his wife whose attempts to seduce him finally succeed. Adultery = wrong, always.

And yet, I've had to twist my own morality to paint this woman and her motives in a sympathetic light. It's still all kinds of messed up (Stockholm ahoy), but you can understand why she wants to do this, and why he ultimately falls--and how spectacular the fallout from all this is going to be when the wife ends up back on the scene.

And I've managed to get at least one reader firmly on the side of the Other Woman. *headdesks* This may be because I've not been posting snippets showing the Wife and how very awesome she is (because that's not where the story is for the first 70% or so of the book, at least, not the parts I've written). And this was not my intention at all, which means I'm going to have to ramp up the Awesome Quotient of the Wife in her scenes.

Fortunately, this will not be difficult, because she is awesome. And at least it's something I'm aware of going forward.

It's a fine line we walk.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2009 06:01 pm (UTC)
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>And yet, I've had to twist my own morality to paint this woman and her motives in a sympathetic light.

Tolstoy found the same thing...it is said that Anna Karenina started out as a bad woman and became more and more enchanting with each read. (If you haven't read the book, she ends up extremely sympathetic, despite her adultery...but this did not save her from the sad end that the 'morality of story' demanded. ;-)
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From:agilebrit
Date:September 9th, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
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Despite all the torture and horrible things happening to my poor characters, this is ultimately a romance, not a tragedy. So, my Other Woman isn't going to Get the Guy (not completely, anyway--it's...complicated), but she's not going to die either.

But it's funny how she went from Villain to Contagonist to being a Protagonist in her own right. This is what happens when we don't outline...
From:ladyhobbit
Date:September 10th, 2009 02:51 am (UTC)
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I would say that Anna suffers at the end from the reality of morality. We all see why she does what she does, and our knowing does make her sympathetic, but the destructive effects of her actions on herself and on all the people around her follow quite naturally and realistically from those actions. (Morality isn't only a set of rules; it's a realistic prescription for human happiness, in the long run.)

I think that the sympathy or identification that we have for characters does not necessarily make us want them to escape negative consequences of their actions. The topic is on my mind because I recently read Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes, which traces the lives of all the characters associated with a school shooting, including the perpetrator. We do feel sympathy for him, but we don't necessarily want him to get away scot free after killing 10 poeple, either.
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From:cdenmier
Date:September 9th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)

How to make a soft fall...

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This is an interesting point...how do you keep the reader turning pages to get to the redemption of certain characters without driving them away by the flaws? A fall has to be bad enough in some ways for the redemption to mean anything, after all.

I was introduced to this concept when my wife read my first chapter and her only complaint was that she couldn't stand the protagonist -- just one chapter worth of him and she said that normally she'd be done (if it had been anyone else's story!). It's really made me think about showing more of the inner turmoil that leads to bad choices, more history about the character, maybe taking the edge off their sinfulness...but no matter what you do you still slide along that scale where some readers are going to say "I hate characters like that" and shut the book.

Issues like this are probably where "talent" and "hard work" and other such nasty things come in!
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 9th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)

Re: How to make a soft fall...

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Exactly!

My character is much softened from her original. My editor had me add some scenes that will hopefully show glimpses of the better her early on...enough to give the reader's hope.

The other thing I did was try to make two of my other characters engaging enough that many readers would keep going for their sake and my main character could thus have some time to grow on them.
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From:cdenmier
Date:September 9th, 2009 06:21 pm (UTC)

Re: How to make a soft fall...

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I thought of that second item too: put some more emphasis on another character (who is much more likable) as a distraction and as a sign to the reader that it's not all about this one guy.

Another thought: the characters that I sometimes treasure the most in stories are those fallen ones who have been crafted in such a way as to have some little likable thing, some quirky, interesting side -- like a pinpoint star shining barely out of a murky nebula -- just enough to make you follow the story because you hope so badly that a definitive choice will come and that they will, finally, choose the better part (and justify your warmth toward them)...the kind of character that you root for and sense could really make the wrong choice...the kind that makes your heart beat faster with anticipation...
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From:gingersea
Date:September 10th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC)
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I don't know how it will be in later books in the series, but so far in _Prospero_Lost_ I haven't found Miranda all that unsympathetic (or, so sorry, icy). Yes, her initial reactions are sometimes unsensitve. But what I really like about her is that she is willing to learn and to revise her initial reactions. Perhaps this is an unusual trait compared to the usual likable but vapid heroine, but a most important one. And you portray it very well.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 10th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
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Thanks!

I think part of it is what the reader brings to it. I styled her after a type of character I really like, so I love her...but a few people have complained they had trouble with her.

Luckily, most of them liked Mab. ;-)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 10th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
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"Of course, I could have avoided all those lost readers if I had just opened my book with a rascally dog stealing a hotdog from the icy Miranda. Then, the dog could have gone on to save Prospero, probably with the help of a couple of mangy kids."

Change the 'rascally dog' to a smart mouth cat named Tybalt, the 'hoghot' to a 'sushi tuna roll' and the 'rascally kids' to the odd couple of Mab and Mephisto and you have a story that would make millions. (Billions after the movie series with Bruce Campbell as Mab, Hugh Laurie as Mephisto, and Cary Elwes as the voice of Tybalt.)
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 10th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I love Cary Elwes for Tybalt...next best thing to ressurecting Phil Hartman to do the voice.

I always pictured Mab as either Bob Hoskins or Fred Ward (which is funny, considering that he's described as looking like Bogie. ;-)

From:ladyhobbit
Date:September 11th, 2009 03:18 am (UTC)
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Yes, Bob Hoskins! A bit put-upon, a bit roughed up by life, a bit sad. Bogie also had the look of a man who's been around the block a few times.
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From:sun_stealer
Date:September 16th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
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I have been enlightened and this lesson will assist me in my writing, thank you.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 17th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
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Glad to help. ;-)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:April 13th, 2011 03:14 pm (UTC)

Can't wait to make a contribution

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Hey - I am really happy to discover this. Good job!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:April 14th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)

Hoping to get involved

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Hey - I am certainly happy to find this. great job!
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