How ‘Good’ are your Stories?

By ‘good’, I mean how moral are your stories?

Does good always prevail over evil? It would make for a boring tale, were the goodies successful at defeating the baddies every time, for one thing, we’re advised to do as writers, is to make our protagonists suffer, then make them suffer some more, to the point where they look doomed.

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The best stories, that remain memorable, contain moral ambiguity. If the good guy has flaws, if they’ve taken a shortcut that’s illegal or reprehensible, it makes them more human. Character flaws in an otherwise strong hero create dramatic tension. Just think of Hamlet’s indecision and self-doubt, when he’s faced with how to avenge his father’s death.

Antiheroes are popular: James Bond, Holden Caulfield, Severus Snape, Othello, Harry Flashman, Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby, Philip Marlowe, Becky Sharp and Emma Bovary stand out because they’re not all good.

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What about the ending of a story? Adult readers can handle ambiguity and disappointment better than children—and if your story is part of a series, it gives them something to look forward to. In one of my crime novels, the serial killer who my detective has been pursuing, and has finally cornered in a Neolithic burial chamber, suddenly disappears in a sinkhole. Seemingly buried beneath thousands of tons of soil and granite, I may reincarnate him in a later story. Wary of making my hero look like a sap, alienating the reader, I gave my copper a strange victory, for he revealed that one of the victims was killed by a second murderer.

With young children, it’s better to have a happy ending, for they’re vulnerable and after all, morality has been taught through stories from time immemorial. This is not to say, that baddies can’t be frightening and even fun.

It’s not just the moral correctness of a story that needs to be considered, for these days, the behaviour of authors is being scrutinised. Publishers are starting to get authors to sign morality clauses, absolving them of responsibility to continue to publish their client’s books, if the author behaves in a deplorable way.

This is potentially worrying, for what of the love lives of erotica writers? If a convicted murderer has gone straight since being released from prison, is it OK for him to pen accurate depictions of how to kill someone? Many famous writers from history were notoriously unstable and defiant of the law—their lack of political correctness made their books successful.

A publisher marketing how right-on, woke, unbiased, open-minded and kind to their parents, children and pets an author is, might help them gain entry into heaven, but there’s a danger that their clients will look like a bunch of goody-goodies whose books are bland and safe.

Reading should be stimulating and challenging, which sometimes means going near the edge of the cliff. Moral rectitude is off-putting.

How ‘good’ are your stories?

Do you deliver a moral message?

Is your image ‘good’ enough to sell books?

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