Today's guest blogger is Christopher Bunn, author of The Hawk And His Boy and The Shadow at the Gate, among other titles. If you haven't already, check out my review of the Hawk and His Boy and interview with Christopher. I think if Christopher were to write a full length novel based solely on the subject of lint, I would read it. His writing is that good.
Moral Compass and Character
As a writer, one of the many fascinating things about story for me is the issue of the moral compass. By moral compass, I mean the ethical framework that either guides a story, or the ethical framework that guides any individual character within a story. The larger overall moral compass of a story is an incredibly involved and potentially contentious topic, and I'll leave it for another time. For this piece, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to muse a bit on the idea of a character's moral compass and why that might be important for writers and, tangentially, for readers. I realize that this topic is almost as equally complicated, so I apologize in advance for the inadequacy of only a few paragraphs.
Whether you're reading Anna Karenina or Very Good, Jeeves, every character you come across has some sort of moral compass pointing to their respective North Star. Some are more easily detected, of course, while others necessitate detective work. The moral character of Levin from Anna Karenina, for example, is painted in sure, deft strokes as the story unfolds. It would be difficult to avoid understanding how his soul ticks by the time you're halfway through the book. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, arguably possesses a more elusive moral compass than Levin. His compass certainly exists, but it takes a little thinking and digging in order to unearth it from beneath Wodehouse's airy social commentary and humor. Children's books, of course, are not immune to this. One could probably write a doctoral thesis on the moral compass of the Cat from Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat.
No one has ever written a character devoid of moral compass. It simply isn't possible. Even the most avowed nihilist, whether he's throwing bombs in one instant and then walking old ladies across the street in the next, still possesses a moral compass (and nihilists, I would argue, possess one of the more simplistic and dreary moral compasses available). Trying to write a character devoid of a moral compass is equivalent to trying to imagine nothing. If you try to imagine nothing, you will not be able to escape imagining something. It's the same with creating a character. His moral compass will assert itself, whether you want it or not.
Why is this issue important for writers? I would argue that there is a certain obligation to the reader here. Regardless of age, we are all influenced by whatever we come in contact with. Countless studies have been done on the relationship between peers, influence, and the effects on the individual. I would argue that, in a small way, books stand in for peers in matters of influence. The results can be infinitesimal or they can be profound. In either case, the reader is influenced for better or for worse. Therefore, no matter what the genre, I think a writer should be kind enough to give the reader a character they can hang onto in their story. To borrow from Louis L'Amour, give them a character they could ride the river with. It needn't be the main character. It might only be a side character who wanders through the scene every once in a while. What's important is that the reader is given someone with a moral compass that has something worthwhile to offer.
Here, I would guess (in addition to the previously mentioned idea of obligation), is where the discussion can become contentious, because this raises the issue of which sorts of moral compasses are better, healthier, or more valuable. That is not a comfortable topic in our age where tolerance has achieved the status of virtue. I'll leave that question for another time, or for your own private, internal discussion. However, I would say that if a reader can be ennobled in some way by a character, even a little way, then the writer has given them a good gift. We all walk in a certain amount of darkness and we will walk more surely if the stories we read contain characters whose moral compasses point to a bright and steady North Star.
Here's an exerpt from Christopher Bunn's biography on Amazon.com:
Christopher Bunn (1969-still alive) was born in California to parents of extra-terrestrial origin. After working a long and not-so-illustrious career that did not include a stint as a mule skinner, six months lost at sea on a life raft provisioned only with a crate of bananas, two years as a prize fighter, several shameful terms in Congress, nor a brief time spent in the circus as a lion tamer, he began writing novels in order to chronicle his life and the lives of other people who did not exist.
That Christopher is one funny guy! If you want to know what he's really been up to, check out his blog, Scribbles and Tunes.