The pervasive thread of violence in my fantasy-action-adventure got me thinking about character and the moral compass. I know it’s fiction. These people don’t exist, they never did. Does that make it okay?
I teach people to hit each other with swords, because at heart, I’m still a ten year-old, and nobody actually dies (so far). I grew up on old Westerns, King Arthur, The Three Musketeers, Samurai movies and Star Wars. It’s all jolly fun.
But is it?
‘Are you not entertained?’
Actual death as entertainment goes back a long way; gladiatorial combat pre-dates the Roman Empire. We believe we’re far more civilised then those ancient civilisations, yet fictional death as entertainment pervades a huge swathe of popular culture. Hunger Games, Squid Game, John Wick… What provides higher stakes than a life-or-death struggle? Well, multiple life-and-death struggles, relentlessly piled on top of each other. It’s more exciting than a game of checkers. What should be the ultimate dilemma, kill or be killed, becomes a cheap thrill.
In some ways, kill or be killed is a simple choice to make. Both my grandfathers got very little say in it during WWII. Conscripted soldiers, they just got on with it. And had to live with it the next forty years.
But my fiction blathers on about choices all the time; the decisions the characters choose to make…
PIVOT: the Western genre
There’s a thread of Old Testament vengeance runs through most Western genre fiction; ‘an eye for an eye,’ and any amount of smiting. But oddly without the equivalent amount of begat-ting. That’s American Puritanism for you.
The culture of the Wild West frontier, the gun and the Bible, permeates to this day, largely thanks to Hollywood. Gary Cooper’s immortal ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ continues through Clint Eastwood’s assorted gunslingers and vigilante cops, to their contemporaries, such as Jack Reacher.
We keep returning to the excitement of the duel, mortal combat that extends far beyond the Western. From the ‘Mustketeers, to Beowolf and Grendel, and on to the ancient Greek epics of Homer’s Iliad. Every few years we get another interpretation of Hector versus Achilles. Or the Three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae; most recently in glorious slow-motion. Animé treats the blood spatter like high-art; Jackson Pollock, just in shades of red.
Somehow in our willing suspension of disbelief, we also suspend our moral compass. Death becomes entertainment. Paradoxically, many of these tales centre on ‘justice,’ ‘honor,’ and ‘admirable’ skill at arms. The commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ gets left behind.
Morality is demoted in favour of spectacle. Somehow, we’re okay with that. It takes something shocking to jolt us into moral outrage, and not just cheap schlock; We Need to Talk About Kevin, or, on-screen, Taxi Driver. Suddenly we care about morality again.
PIVOT: A Question of Scale
“Hey, Leia, you got a date for the We-Just-Killed-Thousands-of-People-Dance tonight?”
(Peter Griffin, Family Guy)
The original Star Wars trilogy is a series of Samurai movies mixed with Battle of the Pacific. The rebels blow up not one, but two ‘Death Stars.’ That must include the caterers, the HR department, the chaplain, and at least one Head of Stationery.
At the end, all of us kids cheered the big fireworks display, and never mind the body count. It’s as if the higher the body count, the less it impacts us.
PIVOT: Good versus Evil
This is the simplistic morality of most stories: Good Guys equal good, Bad Guys equal bad. Black and white. No ambiguity, no decisions with which to wrestle.
I don’t know how many people my grandfathers killed between them. One was at Monte Casino, the other on the Normandy beaches. Chances are they broke that commandment. But I knew them as Good Men.
Alexander The Great. Alfred the Great. Churchill. All lauded as great men; all of them killed a lot of people one way or another. And yet; Churchill Good, Stalin Bad.
Oppenheimer struggled with the morality of the nuclear bomb the rest of his life.
Morality isn’t all black and white. It’s mostly murky grey.
It seems your allowed to do all the wrong things as long as it’s for the right reasons. But then, we stray toward the Ends justifying the Means. ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’
Which leaves us where exactly with character and the moral compass?
PIVOT: Crime and Punishment
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a psychological novel that delves into the complexities of morality, guilt, and redemption. In it, Raskolnikov commits a double murder without remorse or regret. Imagining himself a great man above such strictures as law and morality, he justifies his selfish actions.
Plagued by his own concience, Raskolnikov suffers a breakdown that ends with his confession and imprisonment. Instead of the death penalty, his sentence is mercifully commuted to eight years hard labour in Siberia. It gives him the time to wrestle with the psychological and emotional consequences of his actions as Dostoevsky explores themes of guilt and redemption.
In the grand tradition of Russian Miserablist Literature, Crime and Punishment is a tangle of moral questions. It’s a masterpiece, if you can get past the first seventy pages of misery. Which is why it’s not for everyone, even though it should be. Murder is horrific and has consequences.
Unusually for the Russian judicial system in any age, Raskolnikov received a lighter sentence. Conveniently, it allows for the long redemption arc rather than a short execution.
PIVOT: The Pen and the Sword
“The Pen is mightier than the sword.”
Try telling that to the drunk who wants to beat you to a pulp at 1am in Sunderland town centre.
Which brings me to my own writing in Part Two…