We need more fiction with a moral compass. Not moralizing fiction, not, necessarily, fiction with a moral dilemma at the center of the plot. But, simply, fiction with a moral compass— a sense of right and wrong.
We have been living for some decades now with a publishing culture that rewards fiction without a moral compass. Think back to the advent of ‘bodice ripper’ romance novels. These novels were the first mainstream romance novels to feature explicit sex scenes that went on for several pages. In order to maintain the tradition at the time that the heroine was a pure-minded ‘good girl’, the storyline often included a rape— hence the name ‘bodice ripper’. In one historical novel of this type that I read as a teen, the romantic hero was a ship’s captain who got drunk in port and sent his men out to get him a prostitute. He failed to notice that the girl they brought him was a frightened ‘good girl’ until he’d taken her virginity. In spite of the ‘accidental’ rape and a resulting pregnancy, the two ended up happily in love.
The ‘bodice rippers’ in their day were shocking and got attention for it. Now books must be far worse to garner such attention— such as the Dexter novels, featuring a serial killer as the first person narrator. But it’s OK for Dexter to indulge his desire to murder, because Dexter was raised by a cop and trained to kill only bad men who’d managed not to get caught by the police.
Fiction without a moral compass may be meant for entertainment purposes only, but it can have a negative effect on the moral values of impressionable readers. Young men who read the ‘hot parts’ of a bodice ripper may have gotten the idea that rape wasn’t so bad if you were a clean and handsome fellow, that women secretly fantasized about being raped and would accept it from a man they were attracted to. Readers of ‘Dexter’ might conclude that murder isn’t so bad if the murder victim wasn’t a nice guy.
Fiction with a moral compass can include characters who do immoral things. In some cases, characters who do immoral things and think those things are OK. But the authors of such fiction provide us with a fictional world in which there are moral absolutes, and if a character does wrong without thinking it’s wrong, it’s likely that some respected character will know that something wrong has been done and will convey it to the reader.
To write fiction with a moral compass, one must know the moral laws. In Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments have been a starting point when talking about the moral law. Catechisms of various religious bodies have expanded on the teaching of the Ten Commandments to cover more of the moral law than the Commandments explicitly mention. I remember reading a book which took place in rural Sweden about a century ago. The farming family felt under moral obligation to teach not only their children, but their servant girl, the Lutheran catechism. At that point in history and for some time thereafter, nearly everyone felt that young persons needed such moral teachings to become responsible members of society when adults.
Today, on the other hand, the school systems are occupied by those who would punish a child for mentioning the Ten Commandments in an essay, but insist that the children rebel against traditional moral teachings in certain areas of life. This is particularly intense in modern sex education, which often has the result of making the children believe that it is not possible to resist one’s sexual urges and so therefore teen sex is not a moral issue so long as ‘protection’ is used.
Many of us also lack the traditional religious education that an older generation received. When I was a child in the Sixties, the Presbyterian church we attended had 1 hour of Sunday school classes for all ages year-round. In addition there was a catechism class that my brother and I went to for a while. Now, the Presbyterian church my mother attends has Sunday school only for children, and only during the hour of the worship service. The children attend part of the service and then are dismissed to the Sunday school. The Sunday school also does not meet in summer. One wonders how well this abbreviated religious education can do in teaching children their Commandments and the moral law. And a great many more children these days don’t even get an abbreviated religious education.
It is of course not required that one be religious to have a moral compass. People who were raised in a Judeo-Christian religion and then left their faith tend to hang on to most of the moral values they were taught. Often they feel challenged to prove that they can be decent people without religion. The problem arises when you have people who never were taught the moral law, and who, being without religious belief, tend to dismiss mention of moral laws as part of a religious system they have rejected. Such people can all too easily that it’s OK to lie or to steal if they feel they have a good reason to do so.
Step one of learning to have a moral compass in your fiction is to improve your knowledge of the moral law. In C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, there is a section called ‘Christian Behaviour’ which deals with the moral law in a thoughtful, intelligent way. It is worthwhile reading for the moral-compass-fiction writer of any faith. After this you may seek out other worthwhile books on the moral law from a variety of points-of-view.
Question: are there any storylines possible in fiction that you feel are too immoral/amoral for you to write or to read? For example, suppose you had an idea for a novel in which a racist serial killer was the first-person narrator, and thus was given plenty of scope to explain why he thought his murders were morally OK. Suppose further that the novel was to include no contrasting character with better moral values, and that the killer was never to be confronted with the fact that his deeds were evil. Would you write a book like that, or read it? Why or why not?