The Writer and the Moral Compass

The writer and the moral compass.The pervasive violence in my fantasy-action-adventure got me thinking about the writer and the moral compass. Death as entertainment, spectacle and a cheap way to elevate the stakes. Am I a hypocrite?

Confession time

Guilty as charged, your honour. Post an horrific civil war, there’s an Evil Empire in pursuit of my protagonists. Book One of my not-very-epic Epic Fantasy series has brawls, ambushes, four skirmishes and a set-piece battle. I’m not going to add up the total body count, but in my defence, it’s remarkably restrained for the genre.

Then I do it all again in Book Two.

Book Three turns the tables. We’re on a mission to assassinate the Emperor. It’s all secret and stealthy. I only kill about a dozen people. If I announced that in the pub, the boys in blue would arrive within minutes.

But it’s fiction. These are not real people. Although, as writers, we try to make them as real as we can to the reader. Does that make it okay? Am I a hypocrite?

The violence is neither gratuitous nor glorified. In pursuit of a ‘PG-rating’ I don’t dwell on how horrific the injuries are. Perhaps I should? But I don’t want my readers throwing up their lunch. Or putting the book down for being ‘too graphic.’

My protagonist has Second Sight as part of the magic system. At the beginning, she accepts the death and violence as inevitable and unchangeable. Until she manages to change one of her visions and discovers she has a lot more agency than she thought. She might have saved a lot more lives had she known. She still doesn’t have a lot of regret for the bad guys, though. Because they’re bad, and she’s mad as hell.

That Old Testament, Western gunslinger morality is hard to shrug off when you’ve steeped yourself in it since childhood.

My novella the Sixth Mesenger is much more introspective. My protagonist is a priestess, brought up on New Testament values, but sent on dangerous missions with very Old Testament orders. Trained in combat, she doesn’t hesitate to deal with various antagonists with bad intentions. She’s aware of the stain each violent episode leaves behind and wants a different life.

Cliché Alert

But I’m writing genre fiction; epic fantasy adventure, with a strong through-line of the Wild West. Some of Aeryn’s take-downs I think are both realistic and ‘cool.’ That’s not a badge of merit. In true Western gunslinger fashion (spoiler), she lays down her sword at the end. Kind of.

Some of the attitudes and actions are fundamental to the Promises, Progress and Payoff’s of the genre. The Reluctant Warrior has to fight for the weak and lays down their arms once the fight is done.

It’s all very Ancient World, very tribal, very ‘us’ against ‘them’.

I can’t make Aeryn or Jovanka too whiny or complaining, just to emphasise the moral point. There’s only so much ‘poor me’ readers can stand. Nothing turns off the reader faster. Especially in female protagonists, sadly.

Am I making too much of it?

I’d like to think I adhere to a higher moral code. But I’ve seen enough of the world to know the thin veneer of civilisation rubs off very quickly. So I can justify a nasty fight breaking out within a couple of paragraphs, can’t I?

What would Jane Austen have written in my genre? It’s a ridiculous question.

Meanwhile in the real world…

That belligerent, 1am Sunderland drunk I mentioned last time? I’d have put him down with extreme prejudice, out of pure self-preservation. Fortunately I didn’t have to, or this piece might come from Durham jail.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Absolutely. Am I comfortable with that? No. What can I do about it? I’m not a person of faith. I don’t go to confession. I just write it down. And then go plot another sword fight.

It’s all a murky shade of grey.

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