Fantasy May Need More “Moral Complexity”

One of the real attractions fantasy holds is the way it can comment on morality. The created worlds and rules in the pages of a fantasy novel can give authors a chance to look at morals and ethics (and how we treat them) in ways that might seem too unorthodox, controversial, or simply weird for other forms of fiction.

There is a strong trend in fantasy that is very black-and-white in its moral outlook. It is similar to traditional westerns, where good guys wore white hats, attended church, and treated ladies and children with unceasing respect; the villains, by contrast, hid from the sun in black hats, alternating between murder and twirling little mustaches that looked like obsidian needles. Most traditional fantasy takes a similar route. Good guys are regal and pure, both in motives and appearance. Their adversaries are always the vilest people or monsters or forces, evil either out of insanity or because it is in their nature. The dichotomy is clear, easy to pick apart without getting entangled in dilemmas or doubts.

Understandably, many fantasy writers grew tired of this stark and limited perspective, and have recently sprinted in the opposite direction, preferring the paths of relativism and moral ambiguity. One might call it “the Watchmen treatment.” When it comes to discerning right from wrong, the characters in some novels shrug their shoulders and ultimately say, “Who can know for certain?” People we thought were the heroes commit genocide and rape without the author or even other characters thinking much of it. The “villains” can be treated as almost heroic without having to change their actions or motives. And everyone who tries to take a stand or “do the right thing” in such an ambiguous universe ends up disappointed, or punished, or both. From my current understanding of them, some fantasy authors working in this vein are George R.R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, and Daniel Abraham (so far, however, I have only read Martin, so please correct me if I am mistaken about Abraham and Moorcock).

But, I have to confess that moral ambiguity in any fiction is something that I am frustrated with. Mostly because it is the “easy answer” of our relativistic day and age. It’s often easier to ask questions about moral dilemmas than to arrive at any solid conclusions. And in most recent fantasy fiction, I find more shoulders shrugged than minds sharpened.

I do not mean to say that moral ambiguity works against fiction. When it’s done right, as it certainly is in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it can have a powerful effect on the story and expand its horizons. You can tell the tale from every side, each character being understood as the “hero” of his or her own story. Even when they commit awful deeds, you fully understand why.

And yet, I wonder if there might be a better way to do that. A way that provides intricate characters and a solid (or partly solid) moral philosophy to put their actions in context. As said above, novels are a great medium for wrestling with our understanding of what ought to be done, and what should be avoided. But could writers benefit if they leaned away from ambiguity? I’m currently reading The Last Knight by Hilari Bell and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and am fascinated by the conflicted characters trying to wrestle with their own quandaries about good and evil, even though they have a sense of right and wrong. As far as I know, their worlds are not ambiguous, but complex.

Deep down, we all know there is a difference between good and evil, even if distinguishing the two can frequently tie you up in knots. We still know that some things simply should not be done. As a human being, you have a sense of justice and good that is separate from, and above, evil and cruelty.

The difference between moral ambiguity and moral complexity is that the former is content to keep asking questions, hesitating to settle on any answers in particular. The latter acknowledges the difference between right and wrong, but allows a realistic picture where the two are often hard to figure out, let alone separate. To me, at least, it is moral complexity that feels more true to life, more in keeping with the idea that the best fiction carries a ring of truth. Even if answers about morality are hard to find, they are still available.

Perhaps this is a matter of taste in fiction. I dislike characters that are totally good or absolutely evil, but I have an equal disdain for indistinguishable gray figures shuffling and conniving through the story. Give me characters that can have solid convictions, but have to suffer and think to understand them. In any case, I would love to hear your perspectives on this. Do you prefer ambiguous stories, black and white ones, complex ones? Are there unique and valuable ways that idealistic or ambiguous fiction can comment on morality?

One thought on “Fantasy May Need More “Moral Complexity”

  1. I like a bit of ambiguity and complexity in my fiction. That being said, I want to sense that the story’s metanarrative ultimately aligns with a Judeo-Christian worldview. To me, this grounds the story in a reality that I presume (have faith) exists. A lot of post-modern fiction eschews the concept of any kind of metanarrative at all (ie, an over-arching/universal story line that is true for everyone, everywhere, and in every age). Those kind of stories simply don’t make much sense to me, however.

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