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Friday, April 1, 2011

Guest Blogger, Christopher Bunn:
Moral Compass and Character

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
Christopher Bunn

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.


Andre Jute said...

Raising tolerance to the greatest virtue also devalues moral standards to zero.

In fact, I find it difficult to imagine a novel without some kind of moral centre. The novel is a morality tale, and heave as they might, the amoral will never write a good novel.

That must say something about your novels, Christopher. I do hope I haven't ruined your street cred by implying you're a moral human being!

Loved your brave, politically incorrect piece.

Anonymous said...

You know I loved The Hawk and His Boy! I started reading The Shadow at the Gate the other day and I am simply blown away! I am loving it also, I can’t wait to pick it up again whenever I have to put it down. I can’t wait to see how everything turns out! Thank you for writing and sharing such wonderful stories with us!

aka Linda Mc

Christopher Bunn said...

"The novel is a morality tale, and heave as they might, the amoral will never write a good novel." Wow. You just summed up a wealth of thought in one sentence. We could spend a year of dinners, and a good bottle of wine or two, discussing the implications of what you wrote.

I can't help being politically incorrect, Andre, even if it loses me readers or acquaintances or fortune. Life's too short, as it is. Plus, my wife would be extremely unimpressed with me.

Linda, I'm very glad you like the Shadow. Even after spending ten years sculpting that thing, I still have old friends in those pages that I enjoy visiting. Thank you for reading.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic, though definitely much too short a treatment. I've always felt my idealism, ideas about friendship and right and wrong were shaped more by what I read when I was young than by what went on around me. And I am one of those readers who has to connect to someone in a novel for it to hold my interest. And as you say, it's often not the main character which I think is why I tend to put first person narration in the negative column when selecting books. I'm not sure that what links me to those characters is their moral compass, but that's an idea worth thinking about.


Ryan Fitzgerald said...

Thank you Google for destroying my poignant response. Here is version two, which I hope is at least up to the quality of the original.

I feel compelled to respond to this topic as it is a curious one that has given me much to think about.

"No one has ever written a character devoid of moral compass. It simply isn't possible."

My interpretation of this is to say that since morals are an intrinsic value system, no one can objectively be said to be without a moral compass. Relatively, a person can be lacking on, but only when viewed through the lens of an opposing compass.

But, to play the Devil's advocate, I posit that individuals exhibiting the classic (though not necessarily supported anymore in the clinical literature) systems of sociopathy or psychopathy would be lacking a moral compass (and thus any character adequately portrayed as such). Emotions are tied so closely to morals that without them, a person cannot empathize with others in such a way as to produce the sorts of responses that develop a person's moral code. Thus, individuals unable to feel emotions and empathize with others would not develop such an internal value system and would behave without a moral compass.

I personally like to define morals and ethics as two distinct value systems. Defining morals as an ethical framework troubles me. Morals are an intrinsic value system while ethics are an extrinsic value system. Morals develop from emotions and inform our behaviour under normal circumstances. Ethics are imposed upon us from our community, workplace, etc, and sometimes oppose our morals. A defense attorney is a fairly good example of how morals and ethics can conflict. How would you rationalize defending someone you knew was guilty of any number of heinous acts if you are so morally opposed?

This is most certainly a fascinating topic to discuss with a variety of views. It's been a long time since someone has engaged my academic brain with concepts outside the typical realm of writing and publishing (though this obviously has a place within the realm of writing and characterization). Thank you for the intellectual stimulation! :)

Christopher Bunn said...

You're right, Anon, this is way too short of a piece for such a topic. I probably shouldn't have tackled it.

MC, you're right. Morals and ethics are two different systems. Usually. There are instances where they overlap partially or almost completely. As far as psychopaths and the like, I'd argue that they do have moral compasses. Stunted and twisted, yes, but compasses nonetheless. That's where, for me, you start dipping into the various manifestations of nihilism. The psychopath's moral compass might merely be one built around Self, if anything. If Self is the cardinal point in the psychopath's compass, then it qualifies as a compass, doesn't it? A fairly useless and dangerous compass...

Ryan Fitzgerald said...

I'd never thought of it that way, Christopher. Strangely, that seems more eerie than no compass at all ...

- Carp

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