Decrypting My Brain

>> Monday, August 1, 2011

If the title scared you a little, it just shows you know me. :)

Since Jeff asked when I wrote the previous post, I'll go into some examples that might help clarify things for Relax Max, given that he thought I was being too politic/cryptic. Perhaps I was. He's written some posts on this subject that are quite complementary and worth reading if it's a subject that interests you, as it is one that interests me. You can find them here, here and here.

First, to explain my moral ambiguity. I'm basically a pacifist, but I'm not a true pacifist like Gandhi or King, who would not kill even to save their lives (if we assume their words reflected their true beliefs). And I know there are other true pacifists out there. No, I would, I think be willing to kill to save myself, certainly to save someone else...but I don't think I would kill just anyone. In other words, I'd kill a direct threat to my life or someone trying to kill someone else "innocent," but I couldn't kill, say, another poor schmoe trapped in the lifeboat with me. In that case, since I'm not afraid of dying, I'd probably ask they kill me kindly in my sleep and eat hearty.

That I would kill at all argues that my morals aren't fixed (though I believe they are); what they really are is complex and depend on circumstances. The thing is, most people, I believe, do the same thing. Most agree killing is wrong, but most also don't look at soldiers as murderers (nor do I, unless they really enjoy it for their own pleasure), even though they go into harm's way with the intent to kill to do what they are ordered to do. (I'm not suggesting soldiers are bad guys or the same as murderers, just pointing out the rationalizations most of us do.)

I know I couldn't personally kill someone for wearing a different uniform (though I could do defend myself - can't do it preemptively because I'm well aware the other side may have no more personal interest than I do). I couldn't drop bombs or accept collatoral damage. I'm not saying soldiers are villains because they can. I understand that, if they weren't willing to, there are worse things that can happen as a result. If everyone felt as I do, Hitler would never have been stopped. That's a pretty compelling argument that I should be grateful others are willin to do the dirty work. Everyone must make peace with their own necessities and find out where the lines are they can't cross. They aren't the same for all of us.

Although I think all of us do this to a certain extent - set out what's right and wrong, but lace it with caveats and circumstances that we implicitly understand mean we can accept breaking the rules in ourselves, that we can accept others for doing things we couldn't do, I'm not sure everyone really thinks about that, realizes that we do that. I think that's why it so easy for many people to judge, see some bit of this or that sensationalized story in the news and make a judgement on it. I rarely do that unless I'm very cognizant of the specifics and, even then, I'm always aware of the limitations of my understanding. Without having lived in those shoes, I'm very wary of presuming I know what their necessities, their morals should have been. There are exceptions. There are actions I can't bring myself to be open-minded about, like rape and sexually abusing children, true slavery. Or, in those cases where the motive was pathetic and utterly selfish, I'm unlikely to be sympathetic. And hypocrisy leaves me cold.

I made several points near the end and I wanted to provide examples as I promised. I told Relax Max, on his blog, that I revel in writing characters that challenge my own beliefs in right and wrong, and likely those of my readers. I like creating societies and circumstances where what was "good and bad" is far different than we're used to. I'm going to list several things my protagonists (or allies that stay allies of my protagonists) do that many would have a problem with. In all cases, I feel I've made a strong case that what they've done, even in those cases where it violated their moral code, were justifiable, even laudable. I'm not particularly fond of antiheroes. You might be surprised at what can be justified.

  • Kill for hire.
  • Let your daughter die when you could have prevented it.
  • Murder with premeditation.
  • Seduce someone with the intention of killing him.
  • Torture someone for information.
  • Kill someone who is not a direct threat.
  • Create weapons of mass destruction (including a deadly biological weapon).
  • Abandon slaves you've just freed.
  • Have sex in public with a stranger.
  • Pay for sex (I'm not sure I actually have a character doing so, but someone thinks about it.)
  • Kill people on suspicion of threat.
  • Mandate someone's death if they found out a secret.
  • Kill your own brother.
  • Kill your own children in cold blood.
  • Beat someone up for the satisfaction of it.
  • Lie.
  • Abandon someone you love.
  • Drink "green bug shit."
  • Look the other way when others do things you think are evil.
Think it can't be done? I think a surprisingly large list of ostensibly heinous acts can, if not made into laudable actions, be things that could be understood, even sympathized with, under the right circumstances. And, yeah, I like playing around with the notion of doing just that.

The ironic thing is that Relax Max is right in a way. There are lines I won't have a protagonist cross. Nor do I think anyone would have a problem differentiating my "good" guys from my "bad." And, depending on the circumstances and the particular characters, there are some actions that one character can do quite handily and another could never do, even if circumstances were similar. That's what makes playing with characters and dealing with people in real life so very very interesting.


  • Project Savior

    Looking at your list I had to stop and think about what my heroes have done.

    Murder with premeditation.
    In a few short stories, but they were more the protagonist than the hero.

    Torture someone for information.
    Yep, In two novels.

    Create weapons of mass destruction.
    In my wip the hero tries to kill 6 Billion people.

    Have sex in public with a stranger.
    Yes. Although I'm not sure how that qualifies as a horrible thing.

    Kill your own children in cold blood/Let your daughter die when you could have prevented it.
    The plot for one of my shorts.

    Who doesn't, Although mine tell mostly white lies. I can't recall a single novel that I haven't written, “blah, blah, blah.” X lied.

    Abandon someone you love.
    In my last novel my hero tries like hell to abandon the heroine before battling the bad guy, she doesn't let him.

    Look the other way when others do things you think are evil.
    That is the backstory to my wip.

    Seduce someone with the intention of killing him.
    My heroes have never done that, but I had my hero seduce a girl to get access to her computer.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Ooh, I forgot stole five million dollars from his father. (which his father didn't bat an eye at, but still...)

  • Stephanie Barr

    And note that that these are all things I don't do. I don't lie.

    I know, I know. It's a failing. My husband's always telling me so.

  • Relax Max

    I think you rebutted me on my blog by telling me your characters came from your "imagination" and not from your own personal moral code. And I don't think you said anything about writing your characters for the purpose of "challenging your own beliefs." I may be wrong. I'll go back and look. Until I do, I think you may be slip-sliding and hedging here to head me off at the pass. :)

    Well, this post is Interesting. But you're still missing the whole point.

    You personally think the things on the above list are wrong (or bad), correct?

    If you do, then it follows that when you write a fictional character and have him do some of these things on the list, you are consciously having the character do something you don't approve of in real life; something YOU feel is wrong or bad to do (for you.) YOU define right or good when you create a character who does "right" or is "good." YOU define wrong or bad when you create a character who does "wrong" or is "bad." Who else but you, the author?

    All of your characters who do good and are of high morals are so because of YOUR definition of what is good and moral.

    All of your characters that you choose to make "bad," do things that YOU personally think are bad or immoral and would almost never do yourself. It can be no other way.

    All of the fictional characters you write are either good or bad because of what YOU think is good or bad. You would either condone what your character is doing (the thing is within the boundaries of your own personal moral code) or you condemn what the character does (because it is an act you would NOT personally do or defend.)

    Why is it so important for you to believe all your characters are 100% abstract and don't flow from your own moral code, either congruent with it or deviant from it? How do your characters do right or do wrong if YOU don't define right or wrong in the way you write them?

    It's ok to admit that your writing is a piece of you. Don't fight it for the sake of fighting. :)

  • Relax Max

    And SO much more. But I'll bite my tongue or use my own soap box for the other stuff.

    You are becoming more thoughtful in your posts, it seems to me. I like that. Maybe you are just being wary. :)

  • Stephanie Barr

    Ah, RM. You don't get it.

    This isn't a list of what my BAD guys have done. This is what my good guys have done and I don't condemn any of it. I can imagine doing some of these things under the right circumstances (i.e. Stephanie transplanted into their environment/condition), others I would not even if I were. But I don't condemn them because their histories are different from mine, their values and their environments.

    None of my characters are abstract. All of them share some characteristics of mine. Some are more extremely "me" in some ways and not really like me in others. The all stem from my husband (usually the way I see him) and myself. I've never denied it and I'm not denying it now.

    All the more reason for them to have their own individual code, one that fits their environment, one that challenges what I believe to be right and wrong. My own code has been refined by these exercises, tested, solidified. Even when my conclusion for myself on what I'd do is different than the path my characters have chosen.

    If I included my villains' lists, it would be much nastier and more heinous. In many cases, I do judge them, judge them harshly. In others, my villains are nuanced, flawed rather than evil.

    As for what I said on YOUR blog, it was this. "In fact, I delight in creating societies and circumstances that challenge our (and my own) sense of moral values, finding values that fit a particular past and environment. I also like to learn and pass along the reasoning on why I make some of the choices and values I do (which my characters will demonstrate)." I don't think that's out of step with what I've said here.

    Cheers, Max.

  • Relax Max

    Let me slow down and be more patient:

    Is that a list of things YOU think are bad?

  • Relax Max

    Good people sometimes do bad things. In fiction and in real life. I get that. That isn't the issue.

  • Jeff King

    If I had to proper motivation I could do everything on your list and then some... lets just hope it doesn't ever happen!

  • Stephanie Barr

    They are things that - in general - violate my moral code, though there are circumstances where I might lie for instance with a clean conscience. Others I might do under the right circumstances. Others I don't think I could ever do under any circumstances.

    BUT, I still don't condemn my characters for doing so. I think they are still good characters and I was sympathetic to why they made the choices they did.

    Drinking "green bug shit" really isn't a violation of my moral code. But I'm unlikely to want to do it. It's just funny (and I had a character do it).

  • Stephanie Barr

    You've made me curious, Jeff.

    What circumstances would make you kill your own children? I know why my character did it; she felt she was protecting them from a fate too horrible to withstand.

  • Relax Max

    Part of the fun of writing fiction is to make characters do things. That's cool.

    Is the above list a list of bad things? If they are not, could you make a list of 5 weasel-proof bad things? Would you?

    Here's my list of five bad things that I don't have to weasel about exceptions to in certain circumstances or say they are ok to do if the doer has had a tough childhood:

    Cheating/betraying a trust

    That is my personal list. It has no exceptions for circumstances. All are bad all the time in my opinion and according to my personal moral code. When someone does them, I say he has done something bad even if he has been good all his life.

    It shouldn't be hard to speak without caveats. This is a simple issue we are discussing here.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I don't know if I could do five things. Four of the things on your list I could (and would) do under the right circumstances without violating my moral code.

    I could murder under the right circumstances, if someone had done something heinous and I thought there was a chance they would do so again. I believe in the death penalty and I would not have a problem being an executioner there (a form of murder since I'd do it with motivation - the greater good - and forethought). If I weren't willing to do so myself, I'd be a hypocrite for being for it. I might murder for personal reasons, but only if they were compelling enough I'd be willing to go to jail the rest of my life.

    I would steal to feed my family even myself. I can think of a dozen other reasons I might steal. I might feel guilty about it, but not as guilty as I'd feel if someone starved to death when I could have saved them.

    I'd lie and do. Fiction, is by definition, lying. And I don't feel the least bit guilty.

    There are circumstances where I'd betray a trust. If a friend of my daughter's, for instance, told me she was being abused, I would report it even if she told me under a promise not to. I might feel bad, but, again, not as bad as I would if I said/did nothing.

    So, things on my list:

    Making someone an unwilling slave.
    Hurting someone (even someone "bad") for pleasure - though I might contemplate it or kill them in a novel.
    Sacrifice (in any way) an innocent person to save myself.

    I guess I can only think of four things. And they aren't as crisp, I'm sure, as you were hoping for.

  • Relax Max

    Yours are good. They're honest.

    I could probably do some of the things on my list too, but I would still think they were wrong. Being able to do them (or make a character do them) doesn't mean they become right, I don't think.

    I could never do murder. I could easily kill under several circumstances. You and I have gone around and around about this one before. You have a weird definition of murder, different than a dictionary or the law. That's ok. If the killing is legal, then it isn't murder. That includes state-sanctioned executions even if the executioner loves to do it. But that would be "wrong" to like it, even if not murder. :)

    If my characters do things I think are good, then that alone is what makes the act good. And vice versa. I have no other frame of reference, fiction or nonfiction or real life, than my own personal moral code.

    I suppose that's another reason I don't try to write fiction. I think fiction is a form of lying. (Joke)

    But I can lie.

    It's just wrong. :) :) :)

  • Stephanie Barr

    See, the problem I (personally) have with your definition of murder is that allows me to kill people I couldn't, in good conscience kill, like dropping bombs on a city when I know there are innocents there. It lets Nazi's off if it wasn't directly pleasurable.

    This way, everyone I decide to kill, I have a direct understanding why I'm killing. I take full responsibility without falling back on the "they told me to" process. So, I hold my personal code up higher than the law.

    But that's just me. I don't decide for you nor do I think you're inherently wrong for thinking differently.

    It's ironic that I right fiction, but that I'm inherently honest, don't you think?

  • Stephanie Barr

    By the way, the distinction I'm making here about state-sanctioned isn't just to be contentious. It is, in fact, a central conflict in my second novel where Xander (who does share my moral values more than most)is torn by being mandated to kill by what is effectively his government.

    Myself, I would never have contemplated it, but he does (for reasons I understand), but, in the end doesn't do so and, in fact, overthrows the "government."

    There are few things that make me feel more pleased than playing with these lofty notions, challenging morals without sounding preachy. I don't think my work is particularly preachy and is, in fact, entertaining. Which is why this kind of thing is so effective.

  • Relax Max

    "... the problem I (personally) have with your definition of murder is that allows me to kill people I couldn't, in good conscience kill..."

    1. It's not my definition of murder. It is what the word means in the English language.

    2. Murder doesn't allow you to murder/kill ANYONE, under ANY circumstances. Murder is always wrong. Killing is NOT always wrong. Killing is not always murder. Killing is SELDOM murder, actually, statistically speaking. You need to get those two things untangled in your mind. You really do. I'm serious. Otherwise, you couldn't defend your property and family from nazis or needfully kill a rapist. I don't expect you to agree that society executing murderers is right. It is simply a fact, so it doesn't matter if you agree in that respect. If nazis took over your country, you might not have that choice of what to believe.

    Xander shares your moral values. He or she has none without yours. If he or she does bad things, they seem bad simply because you compared them to your personal moral code when you wrote it, and they seem bad to you. And, sigh, again, it has nothing to do with what you personal could do or not do. It is imagination, but the imagination is driven by your moral values of good and bad. That's why I asked if you could define bad for me. And you did. Others might put other things on such a list. Others would therefore assign different bad things for Xander to do.

    I think I want to talk about pacifism now. But I won't take up all your blog space.

    Thank you for your kind attention.

  • Relax Max

    I don't take offense at anything you say. I compartmentalize debate. I think you are an honest person, and I think I understand some of the reasons you write fiction - the sorting out of things, clarification of values, and the therapeutic value such writing brings. And I don't think fiction is lying. I was only joking or taunting when I said that. Fiction is literature, not lying. Fiction is literature which describes imaginary events or people. That's all. Take care.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I also make a distinction between murder and killing, but I do believe in justifiable murder and do thinking some killing is wrong.

    Nor are we defining murder exactly the same way. I read the definition but it was too weasely to be usable for my moral values.

    Nor am I hot and bothered by this debate, RM. I've found it interesting.

  • flit

    awesome discussion going on here.... definitely interesting - and then some

  • flit

    yay! it let me comment!!

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