Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Characters as Moral Centers in Writing

So far I've blogged about reading and writing, but I haven't really touched on how those might relate to "Christian Spirituality." I suppose it's a given that most Christian writers (whoever their audience) feel that stories, if they're good stories, turn on questions of morality and human nature (even if the characters aren't human). But straight-up morality tales tend to seem simple, if not dull.

Many authors (Christian or not) manage to get around the problem of how-to-promote-an-idea-without-seeming-didactic, by having a character who is the moral center of the work and speaks for the author. (Though there are other ways of promoting an idea.) Often the moral center is not the protagonist of the work, but a companion the protagonist should not ignore. Examples of moral centers in literature would be Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Lee in East of Eden by John Steinbeck. (By the way, every time I watch Eli Stone, Dr. Chen makes me think of Lee: his role as moral center, his knowledge of spiritual texts, his fake Chinese accent that he puts on or discards at will--someone working on Eli Stone knows some Steinbeck).

I'm playing around with a moral center in my own work right now, but I'm stumbling across what I'm sure must be a common problem. In real life, one person really shouldn't be the absolute guide for another. And I like (to try) to write about my characters as people and not simply as symbols for certain philosophies. This generally means that they have to have blind spots--areas of human silliness that are (or become) apparent to the reader while remaining obscured to the characters. The more attached I become to a character the more I want to make sure I do his/her "human-ness" justice. So my moral center character seems a bit uncentered lately.

There must be some good ways to play with this combination of moral center and fallible human being. Forgive me while I think out loud for a moment... Perhaps one could write a character who is reliable on general issues of morality, but completely unreliable on issues of, say, world politics and how elevators work?

Or perhaps better still, have the moral center's blind spot be the opposite of the protagonist's? I suppose you could say this was the case in The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Throughout the novel (the painter) Basil's advice is consistently better than anyone else's. But both Basil and Dorian have sins that they wish to hide. Without giving too much away, about three thirds of the way through the tale, these sins come to light. Basil, however, solidifies his role as the moral center by putting his finger on the places their crimes sprang from: "I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished" (ch. 13, some very Christian language in this chapter). Basil's main flaw is the reverse of Dorian's, and his role as moral center is reinforced by the fact that he can see his blind spot long before Dorian sees his own.

I kind of like Wilde's format here. Thoughts?

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