A Fiction Writer's Ethical Obligations

By Dusk Peterson

One day two years ago, I was discussing with a fellow author a fiction writer's ethical obligations when writing about an underage character who has sex. We both knew that this was a matter of controversy in the fiction community to which we belonged, and we both treated criticisms of fictional treatments of underage sex with the seriousness such criticisms deserved.

At one point, my correspondent unexpectedly switched to the topic of master/slave romances, a subgenre that was common in our fiction community but which, to my knowledge, had never been criticized.

"You know," she said, "I live in a country where the topic of slavery is still very sensitive. To me, stories in which slaves fall in love with their masters are as ethically problematic as stories in which youths fall in love with men."

I thought of my correspondent's remark while working this year on two related projects. One work, The Eternal Dungeon, is written from the perspective of men running a dungeon whose practices include judicial torture. The other work, Michael's House, is written from the perspective of men running a house of youth prostitution (the novel contains no sex scenes). I have good reason to believe that the second series will garner me more controversy than the first.

Yet it is not immediately obvious why this should be the case. With portrayals of sympathetic torturers so common in genre fiction, it has always been a wonder to me that the members of Amnesty International do not rise up en masse and demand an end to such stories. The fact that I have never heard such stories criticized on ethical grounds is a sign of how little concern our society has for the topic of judicial torture. Yet surely judicial torture is as serious an issue as youth prostitution. For centuries, people have justified the use of torture to obtain confessions from alleged criminals, and this remains the case in many parts of the world today, even in places where this practice is outlawed. It could well be argued that a sympathetic fictional depiction of characters who support judicial torture could increase the real-life use of such torture.

Every era places certain ethical concerns above others. In our time, the fictional depiction of immoral or questionably moral sexuality is considered to be a topic of high concern, especially when underage characters are involved. In other eras, other ethical issues have been considered of greater importance. Yet throughout the fluctuations caused by changes in societal concern, the same issue remains for the fiction writer: How should the writer depict views or practices that are immoral or questionably moral?

This is an issue that has plagued writers since the beginning. Homer faced the problem; so did the authors of the Bible. One popular solution has been to provide the story with an authoritative character who declares which views or activities are wrong. Having an infallible divine being come down and condemn a character is a simple solution for the author. Yet even the biblical writers were aware that this solution could not always be used. Sometimes it was simply not possible to tell a good story in such a way that it was made blatantly obvious which views or actions the author condemned.

What are the fiction writer's obligations in such a case? No author, I think, has spoken more cogently on this topic than the mystery writer and religion author, Dorothy L. Sayers, so I will quote at length from her thoughts on authorship in The Mind of the Maker.


[T]he creator's love for his work is not a greedy possessiveness; he never desires to subdue his work to himself but always to subdue himself to his work. The more genuinely creative he is, the more he will want his work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of himself. Well-meaning readers who try to identify the writer with his characters or to excavate the author's personality and opinions from his books are frequently astonished by the ferocious rudeness with which the author himself salutes these efforts at reabsorbing his work into himself. They are an assault upon the independence of his creatures, which he very properly resents. Painful misunderstandings of this kind may rive the foundations of social intercourse, and produce explosions which seem quite out of proportion to their apparent causes.

"I have ordered old brandy; I know you adore old brandy."

"What makes you think so?"

"Oh, I have read your books: I know Lord Peter is a great connoisseur of old brandy."

"He is; that needn't mean that I am."

"Oh! I thought you must be, as he is."

"What on earth have my tastes to do with his?"

It is quite possible that the author does like old brandy (though in this particular instance it happens not to agree with her). But what is intolerable is that the created being should be thus violently stripped of its own precious personality. The violence is none the less odious to the creator for the ingratiating smirk with which it is offered. Nor is the offense any more excusable when it takes the form of endowing the creature with qualities, however amiable, which run contrary to the law of its being:

"I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian."

"From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely."

"But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one."

"He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion."

"But he's far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian."

"My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption."

"I am disappointed."

"I'm afraid I can't help that."

(No, you shall not impose either your will or mine upon my creature. He is what he is, I will work no irrelevant miracles upon him, either for propaganda, or to curry favour, or to establish the consistency of my own principles. He exists in his own right and not to please you. Hands off.)

Sometimes the suggestion to use force is accompanied by obliging offers of assistance. (Incidentally this type of petition must be extremely familiar to God Almighty.) Thus:

"Couldn't you make Lord Peter go to the Antarctic and investigate a murder on an exploring expedition?"

"Now, from what you know of him, can you imagine his being inveigled into an Antarctic expedition, under any conceivable circumstances?"

"But it would be a new background – I could give you lots of authentic material."

"Thank you, you are very kind." (Get to gehenna out of this and write up your own confounded material. Leave my creature alone – I will not "make" him do anything.)

It will be seen that, although the writer's love is verily a jealous love, it is a jealousy for and not of his creatures. He will tolerate no interference either with them or between them and himself. But he does not desire that the creature's identity should be merged in his own, nor that his miraculous power should be invoked to wrest the creature from its proper nature.


So says Dorothy L. Sayers, who cannot be accused of having little concern for the ethical impact of her writings on her readers.

The key word in the above passage is "propaganda." Any author who tries to force a character to behave contrary to his nature, perhaps in order to make clear that the author doesn't approve of such behavior, is not writing fiction; the author is writing propaganda. Of course, the author has the best of motives – a desire not to influence the reader into engaging in evil behavior. But propaganda writers always have the best of motives. What distinguishes fiction from propaganda is not motive but the unwillingness to twist one's characters to do what one thinks they should do.

The conscientious fiction writer therefore finds himself squeezed between two equally demanding rocks. On the one hand, the writer feels obliged not to leave the reader with the impression that questionable ethical viewpoints should be unthinkingly praised. On the other hand, to manipulate the characters to believe other than what they do would be to spoil the integrity of the story. Add to this the fallibility that many authors are aware of: they know that their own viewpoints are likely to be lacking in certain areas, and if they turn their stories into didactic treatises, their stories are likely to have no greater power than their fallible viewpoints on ethical issues. The stories that have lasted over time are those that rise above the narrowness of their authors' viewpoints, stories that have a power to reach beyond the limited perspective held by any single human being.

Some authors have bravely tackled the problem of conflicting duties and have been successful in doing so. In contrast to certain authors' superficial treatment of sympathetic torturers, for example, one can cite Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. In it, she depicts a torturer who is in no way a cardboard villain – she shows us his human frailties and his admirable qualities. Yet at the same time she leaves us with so horrific a depiction of his deeds that the reader is left with the overwhelming impression of this man's essential failure to leave up to his higher promise.

It is much more difficult to do this when writing from the perspective of the person in question; this is particularly the case for authors writing about other places and eras where societal evils may be accepted without question. I know of no author who has faced this challenge better than Mary Renault. The first lines of her novel set in Ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine, are as follows:


When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

You will say there is nothing out of the way in this.


This plunges us straight into a world where infanticide is taken for granted. Never does Renault destroy the integrity of her protagonist or her setting by explicitly stating that her protagonist is limited in his viewpoint. Yet her novel's depiction of infanticide provides the reader with the necessary clue that all is not well in the society in which her protagonist lives.

That Renault struggled with the problem of a fiction writer's obligations is clear from her disclaimer in The Persian Boy, concerning the decision of her character, Alexander the Great, to conquer the known world through warfare: "It needs to be borne in mind today that not till more than a century later did a handful of philosophers even start to question the morality of war. In [Alexander's] time the issue was not whether, but how one made it."

If Renault were writing today, I suspect that she would feel obliged to print a similar disclaimer concerning her characters' positive attitudes toward underage sex. Which brings us back full circle to the beginning of this essay. Every era, as I have said, has its own special concerns, but in every era the fiction writer is faced with the same dilemma: how to retain the integrity of his story while at the same time making clear that ethical difficulties exist in his characters' views or actions. This is a challenging task, and the results of the author's decisions are unlikely to satisfy every reader, either in the present or in the future. The best the writer can hope for is that the readers will show as much sympathy towards his failures as he himself shows towards his characters' failures.

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