Hard choices. Shades of gray. No clear right or wrong. Man, that’s the stuff of good drama, the conflict that propels the best stories. That’s what elevates fiction into art, or at least one of the things. If narratives were only black and white, there would be no anti-heroes, no tragic villains.
Moral choices make up some of the finest material a writer has to call upon, and as a bonus, it can be wonderful fun to do. Admit it: don’t you kind of like putting the squeeze on your characters and seeing which way they jump? There’s something wondrous in finding the true hearts of your fictional people through trial and moral agonizing…especially when they surprise you.
Would Marlow’s trip down the river and back mean as much if, in the end, he didn’t want to jump ship and join Kurtz in the Congo? Would Lear’s fall be as agonizing if it wasn’t based as much on his own wrongheadedness in dividing his kingdom as it was blindness to his children’s faults? Would Big Brother be so menacing if Winston hadn’t collapsed so completely under the Ministry of Love’s tender mercies? (Although, mind you, a metal mask full of rats is an excellent incentive for change.) The point is, each of these characters had varying levels of inner strength—or moral fortitude, if you will—and how they react and overcome the obstacles within and without help defines the course of the narrative.
Admittedly, this is an old-fashioned viewpoint on moral conundrums in literature, and one that is not as popular anymore, at least not in what is laughingly called “serious” literature. Modern reading audiences tend to want more nuanced, complex portrayals in their narratives now, and one of the effects of these portrayals is to get away from grand moral conflicts and see everything in gradations of gray. There’s nothing wrong with that; certainly it seems more realistic, less operatic in scope. Besides, even the comic books are giving their heroes and villains more depth, and thus less starkly rendered conflicts. They tend to be more slippery slope deals now—DC Comics’ controversial Identity Crisis storyline from a few years back is a prime example of this—and that’s not a bad thing; some excellent work has been produced in this murky vein.
And yet, there’s something to be said for moral questions writ large. There’s a kind of purity, a Sturm und Drang power that comes from presenting a difficult moral choice to a character of strength and allowing them to wrestle it to the end, without the fudging and constant shifting of perspective that we tend to do in our more grown-up moments. When a writer can take this approach and not lose sight of the characters, when fundamental questions of right and wrong can play out in a character’s actions and illuminate the character as a thinking, feeling being, that’s transcendent. When you do that, you skip past art and reach out toward wonder.
Shall I provide an example of what I mean? Let me give you a brief rundown on the most frustrating, haunting, I’m-going-to-shake-this-guy’s-hand-for-this-book-alone novel I have yet read. The novel is by a fellow named David Morrell. He’s best known for thrillers and mainstream potboilers (yes, the same Morrell who created Rambo, but that’s not his bad: Rambo died in the novel), but before he got into that, he wrote a number of thoughtful, off-kilter novels. One of them was Testament.
I’m not going to go deeply into the plot, but it’s basically a chase novel: A journalist is being hunted by a group he exposed in an in-depth undercover investigation, and members of this group follow him and his family into the wilderness, where he does his damnedest to keep his family alive and the group away from them. After being chased for the whole winter, amid mounting casualties on both sides, the journalist manages to take out the pursuers at an appalling cost. However, the monstrous bastard who ordered the pursuit is safely elsewhere, and after the journalist manages to get out of the wilderness, he finds himself with a golden opportunity to return the favor.
By the time the reader gets to this point, it’s very nearly the end of the book, and Morrell chooses to end things with a moral choice by the journalist that enraged me. I’m not exaggerating, either; I believe I threw the book at the wall when I was finished. At the time, even though I recognized the magnitude of the choice the hero faced and why Morrell went where he did, I hated the result. Now that I’m older and somewhat wiser, I recognize that what Morrell achieved was, plainly, fucking brilliant. If I ever get the chance to meet David Morrell, I will gladly shake his hand and tell him no matter what he writes, no matter how he may choose to whore himself out in the future if that’s how he decides to roll, I will always respect him for Testament. That kind of moral conflict is pure narrative gold, and that’s worth shooting for, no matter how many flavors of gray your characters wear.