Wright’s Writing Corner: The Morality of Story


This weekend we watched a movie with the children. My children are great fun to watch movies with, because they are interested in the process of how stories work. So, I can stop the movie and talk to them about why something happened in the story and what result is expected.


For instance, we were watching Hotel For Dogs. In the opening, a dog longs for a man’s hotdog. The man sees this and teases the dog, offering the hot dog and yanking it away. The man is distracted, and the dog gets the dog. (That was a fun phrase to write.)


 We explained to the kids that stories for children operate around an unspoken morality. The dog wanting something that is not his—wrong. If the dog had taken the hotdog at this point, he would have been in the wrong. The man teasing the dog—more wrong. Now, when the dog gets the hotdog, the viewer is on his side.

But when we say “moral” and “wrong” we are not talking about laws, courts, and sins. We are talking about something much more important to the watching/reading public.

Audience sympathy.





The morality of story is not a matter of allegories or morality tales, meant to instruct the humble. But rather, the laws of storytelling by which one grabs or fails to grab the audience’s sympathy, to get the audience on the side of your character.


Not a feel-good agenda, but a relentless master before whom all storytellers must bow.


A hungry dog…many people sympathize. But it the dog steals a man’s lunch, some viewers lose sympathy. If the man is shown to be mean, sympathy for the dog increases a hundred fold. Now, we’re all on his side when he gets away with his delicious treat.


All of us? No. Of course not. Nothing can gain everyone’s sympathy. Some people just will not like a dog, no matter what you have him do. Some people are in a contrary mood, and what normally might gain favor just annoys them…but in this case, the targeted audience was children. Very few children are so jaded they can’t enjoy a good story about a dog.


The morality of stories has a relentless logic to it, a logic that cannot be changed by politics or personal persuasions. It just is what it is. However, the moment you understand it, you can make it work for you, get it to do almost anything…like make children sympathetic to a dog that steals a man’s lunch.


In fact, once you understand what makes a character sympathetic, you can make even really unsavory characters sympathetic…just by making sure that, to the audience, their side seems justified.


Some people complain about sculpting a plot around the logic of the morality of stories. They feel it will make the story too predictable. There are several answers to this:


One: Not to children. They’ve never seen it before. But they do have a sense of right and wrong. This sense allows their sympathies to be engaged, even if they don’t understand why.


Two:  Predictability can be enjoyable. A romance reader wants the story to end happily. A child wants a fairytale to turn out the way he expects. Yet, often the audience wants to see bad punished, good triumph, and little dogs run off with grown men’s hotdogs.


Three: Following the logic of the morality of story is not the same as anticipating the outcome of the plot. Writers have tremendous leeway with how they use the elements that make up the fundamental building blocks of stories. As I said above, once they understand the rationale, they can make nearly anything sympathetic. 


Four:  An author can choose not to stick with the “formula”. Does this mean their story will suck? Not at all! It just means that the audience, however large, will be smaller than it might have been. But, they can do a better job if they are aware of the price they are paying than if they do not.


One example is Shrek. The authors there turned fairytales on their head…but they still followed the laws of making characters sympathetic to make their ogre anti-hero appealing. (Everyone sympathizes with a grumpy guy having his peace invaded. ;-)


Another example is in my novel, Prospero Lost. The main character, Miranda, is not sympathetic. She is cool and distant, and some readers do not like her because of this. If I had followedmore closely the logic of how to make a character sympathetic, I would not have alienated those readers …but then, Miranda’s redemption, once she finally learns better in later volumes, would not have been as great either.


It’s a risky trade-off. The whole audience will be smaller than it might have been, but, God willing, those who keep reading will be rewarded with a more memorable story.


Of course, I could have avoided all those lost readers if I had just opened my book with a rascally dog stealing a hotdog from the icy Miranda. Then, the dog could have gone on to save Prospero, probably with the help of a couple of mangy kids. 

Would have made millions.



49 thoughts on “Wright’s Writing Corner: The Morality of Story

  1. Very nice! I enjoyed this very much. Don’t know how much I will retain in the heat of writing, but very well thought out and presented.

    Kudos! ;) D- (yes, I’m being lazy ;)

  2. “Prospero’s Pooch.” I like it. :)

    One of the things I’ve been playing with in my own fiction has been precisely this, but in reverse. Subverting sympathies, letting the “hero” be a little monstrous (which is to say, letting her/him be human). Seeing how good I can make the protagonist and still have the reader dislike her/him at the end, or the opposite – how much evil can my hero do and still be liked? There’s elements of this in both of my Bad-Ass Faeries stories.

    (which is probably why I don’t write a lot of children’s stories)

  3. *nods* It’s interesting how the ideas of “right” and “wrong” can evolve in the telling of a story. My protag (points at icon) is a married man stuck in an untenable situation with a woman not his wife whose attempts to seduce him finally succeed. Adultery = wrong, always.

    And yet, I’ve had to twist my own morality to paint this woman and her motives in a sympathetic light. It’s still all kinds of messed up (Stockholm ahoy), but you can understand why she wants to do this, and why he ultimately falls–and how spectacular the fallout from all this is going to be when the wife ends up back on the scene.

    And I’ve managed to get at least one reader firmly on the side of the Other Woman. *headdesks* This may be because I’ve not been posting snippets showing the Wife and how very awesome she is (because that’s not where the story is for the first 70% or so of the book, at least, not the parts I’ve written). And this was not my intention at all, which means I’m going to have to ramp up the Awesome Quotient of the Wife in her scenes.

    Fortunately, this will not be difficult, because she is awesome. And at least it’s something I’m aware of going forward.

    It’s a fine line we walk.

    • >And yet, I’ve had to twist my own morality to paint this woman and her motives in a sympathetic light.

      Tolstoy found the same thing…it is said that Anna Karenina started out as a bad woman and became more and more enchanting with each read. (If you haven’t read the book, she ends up extremely sympathetic, despite her adultery…but this did not save her from the sad end that the ‘morality of story’ demanded. ;-)

      • Despite all the torture and horrible things happening to my poor characters, this is ultimately a romance, not a tragedy. So, my Other Woman isn’t going to Get the Guy (not completely, anyway–it’s…complicated), but she’s not going to die either.

        But it’s funny how she went from Villain to Contagonist to being a Protagonist in her own right. This is what happens when we don’t outline…

      • I would say that Anna suffers at the end from the reality of morality. We all see why she does what she does, and our knowing does make her sympathetic, but the destructive effects of her actions on herself and on all the people around her follow quite naturally and realistically from those actions. (Morality isn’t only a set of rules; it’s a realistic prescription for human happiness, in the long run.)

        I think that the sympathy or identification that we have for characters does not necessarily make us want them to escape negative consequences of their actions. The topic is on my mind because I recently read Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, which traces the lives of all the characters associated with a school shooting, including the perpetrator. We do feel sympathy for him, but we don’t necessarily want him to get away scot free after killing 10 poeple, either.

        • That’s a really good point.

          I think that a good author can make us sympathetic to anyone, but does fulfill the basic moral order by seeing to it that those who deserve to be punished are punished.

          Some modern authors don’t do this…they celebrate the villain. That I don’t care for.

          • Snape in Harry Potter– he did bad things in the past and in the last few stories, and there were a few cheap ways Ms. Rowling *COULD* have finished it– but she didn’t go cheap, by either putting an “evil” label on and going from there, or magically wiping away the very bad things he did.

          • Before the last book came out, my mom and I were agreed– how she handled him would decide if my kids would have the books around.

            Maybe it’s because my family has a decent stripe of misanthropes, but we like Snape, too– even before the movies!

  4. How to make a soft fall…

    This is an interesting point…how do you keep the reader turning pages to get to the redemption of certain characters without driving them away by the flaws? A fall has to be bad enough in some ways for the redemption to mean anything, after all.

    I was introduced to this concept when my wife read my first chapter and her only complaint was that she couldn’t stand the protagonist — just one chapter worth of him and she said that normally she’d be done (if it had been anyone else’s story!). It’s really made me think about showing more of the inner turmoil that leads to bad choices, more history about the character, maybe taking the edge off their sinfulness…but no matter what you do you still slide along that scale where some readers are going to say “I hate characters like that” and shut the book.

    Issues like this are probably where “talent” and “hard work” and other such nasty things come in!

    • Re: How to make a soft fall…


      My character is much softened from her original. My editor had me add some scenes that will hopefully show glimpses of the better her early on…enough to give the reader’s hope.

      The other thing I did was try to make two of my other characters engaging enough that many readers would keep going for their sake and my main character could thus have some time to grow on them.

      • Re: How to make a soft fall…

        I thought of that second item too: put some more emphasis on another character (who is much more likable) as a distraction and as a sign to the reader that it’s not all about this one guy.

        Another thought: the characters that I sometimes treasure the most in stories are those fallen ones who have been crafted in such a way as to have some little likable thing, some quirky, interesting side — like a pinpoint star shining barely out of a murky nebula — just enough to make you follow the story because you hope so badly that a definitive choice will come and that they will, finally, choose the better part (and justify your warmth toward them)…the kind of character that you root for and sense could really make the wrong choice…the kind that makes your heart beat faster with anticipation…

          • Re: How to make a soft fall…

            I guess then it’s a matter of preference — and story integrity — how much you bend characters to be more palatable and, conversely, how much of your audience you’re willing to lose.

            Me, I tend — for good or for ill — to lean toward keeping the audience bigger. I’m sure folks have a variety of opinions on the matter!

          • Re: How to make a soft fall…

            No author can get everybody…but you could lose everybody…the balance–how much to try to catch a wide audience and how much to strike out for a narrower nitch–is a decision each author must make anew for each story.

        • Re: How to make a soft fall…

          One of the best “fallen” characters I ever saw was “Buffy’s” Faith. You saw her start out as good, and then fall. It was with a mixture of sadness and pain that I watched her keep going further and further. Will she learn the error of her ways? I eagerly watched with anticipation to see if she did.

          Oddly, most of the characters (except for one or two) in MMO’s I play, or have played are anti-heroes. Perhaps, that’s because I enjoy pvp so much.

          There’s also, for some reason or another, something likable about someone deliciously evil. Take for instance Skeletor or Darth Vader. “Love to hate” as the expression goes.

          • Re: How to make a soft fall…

            John loves Villains. One thing he particularly loves is villains how want to repent, but don’t really know how. He’s played these in games a few times, with great comic success.

  5. I don’t know how it will be in later books in the series, but so far in _Prospero_Lost_ I haven’t found Miranda all that unsympathetic (or, so sorry, icy). Yes, her initial reactions are sometimes unsensitve. But what I really like about her is that she is willing to learn and to revise her initial reactions. Perhaps this is an unusual trait compared to the usual likable but vapid heroine, but a most important one. And you portray it very well.

    • Thanks!

      I think part of it is what the reader brings to it. I styled her after a type of character I really like, so I love her…but a few people have complained they had trouble with her.

      Luckily, most of them liked Mab. ;-)

      • I thought it was amusing; Miranda will have a moment of empathy that to her feels so strange and unusual but to us seems basic and ordinary. We see how much she has to learn.

        • “Miranda will have a moment of empathy that to her feels so strange and unusual but to us seems basic and ordinary. We see how much she has to learn.”

          Perhaps, one of the reasons I had little trouble with her, is because she reminds me so much of me. I spend so much time trapped in my own head, it is difficult to understand others. This is the major reason why Stoicism was so appealing for me. It gave me an avenue, a guide for life if you will, to deal with outside stuff, but in a way I could understand. I suspect that is why I also had a lot of trouble after I abandoned philosophy, for a time. I’m not saying that Stoicism is the answer, but at least it made life manageable.

        • So glad you caught that…it’s hard as an author to know what is making it across.

          She’s a bit dim, too, in this one regard. She doesn’t figure out what is going on until the last third of Book Three. ;-)

          Edited to add: In her defense, a LOT of stuff gets thrown at her in Book Two. ;-)

      • oh… well, I thought Mab is okay, but maybe a bit flat (yes, I understand it’s an identity he’s assumed rather than his *real* one, whatever that will turn out to be). But Miranda really seems alive to me. As do her brothers.

        • Isn’t that interesting!

          That makes me quite happy. In a good book, different characters will appeal to different people. I’d heard so much praise of Mab, I had begun to worry that anyone would connect with Miranda.

          Mephisto, too, is a favorite of some (though I, personally, love Theo.)

          Writing is a funny thing. The last few chapters of Prospero Lost are a good example. One of my initial readers told me that the scenes at the North Pole were foolish and I should take them out….I mentioned this to my other readers and three of them said, “No! They were my favorite scenes!” At least one friend thinks that part is his favorite in the whole three books.

          Which just goes to show that writer’s can ask other’s opinions, but they can’t put too much weight onto them. ;-)

  6. “Of course, I could have avoided all those lost readers if I had just opened my book with a rascally dog stealing a hotdog from the icy Miranda. Then, the dog could have gone on to save Prospero, probably with the help of a couple of mangy kids.”

    Change the ‘rascally dog’ to a smart mouth cat named Tybalt, the ‘hoghot’ to a ‘sushi tuna roll’ and the ‘rascally kids’ to the odd couple of Mab and Mephisto and you have a story that would make millions. (Billions after the movie series with Bruce Campbell as Mab, Hugh Laurie as Mephisto, and Cary Elwes as the voice of Tybalt.)

    • Oh, I love Cary Elwes for Tybalt…next best thing to ressurecting Phil Hartman to do the voice.

      I always pictured Mab as either Bob Hoskins or Fred Ward (which is funny, considering that he’s described as looking like Bogie. ;-)

Comments are closed.