Wright’s Writing Corner: Guest Blogger: Bernie Mojzes

First, before this week’s blog: Wednesdays is apparently the day for blogging about writing! Author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has begun posting Wednesday writing blogs as well. You can find them here.

Our guest blogger for this week is Bernie Mojzes, who has written stories for, among other things, the Bad Ass Faeries Series of anthologies of which I am one of the humble assistant editors. For more about Bernie, see the paragraph at the end of the post.


 The Moral Ambiguity of Story


I’m riffing a bit off of Jagi’s post of last week on the morality of story – the mileage we as writers can get from playing on reader sympathies, and on the nigh-instinctual sense of justice. The sympathetic character overcomes obstacles and gets a reward at the end. The unsympathetic character gets punished. This is something you’ll see in countless books and plays and movies, in popular songs and even in our history books. And when you work it through your story all the way to its logical end, there’s even a term for it: the "Hollywood Ending."


And it works. It is effective, and it sells. It’s a massively useful tool in shaping the reader’s expectations of what is right and wrong in the world you are creating for them.


But that’s not life.


Life is complicated, messy and stupid, and so are people. Good people do bad things. Smart people do stupid things. And sometimes horrible people commit acts of profound kindness. And if you want to capture that messiness, sometimes you need to subvert that instinctive sense of justice.


That is one of the things I’ve been actively exploring in my own writing. I have very few purely heroic characters.


I’ve been looking at how unsympathetic I can make my heroes and still have the reader like them, and how sympathetic I can make my villains and still have them disliked. When the Good Guys (TM) win, I want the reader to feel that the correct outcome occurred, that the right person won, and yet still feel a sense of unease about it. Sometimes I even want the reader to be unsure of whom they are rooting for by the end of the story.


There are as many ways to introduce de-sympathizing elements into your story as there are to introduce sympathizing elements. Here are a few things to think about:



1) Make the hero imperfect, complete with dislikable traits, vanities or obsessions. Make the villain sympathetic. Let your hero gloat a little when bad things happen to the villain.


2) Make the hero all manner of good, struggling against someone who is wholly despicable. And then turn things around so that all the attempts to do good bring about something bad.


3) Have you villain be generally good and noble, but with goals that we would consider bad or evil. Think Field Marshal Rommel in WWII, eulogized by Winston Churchill on his death, or an alien hero trying to save her people from extinction by making Earth habitable for them (with the unfortunate side effect of making it uninhabitable for humans). Let your hero be a right bastard as s/he saves the day.


4) Have the characters do good things for the wrong reasons. There’s a scene in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS where the protagonist keeps a friend of his from killing herself. But because there’s an underlying motivation of wanting to get laid, the way he saves her does not actually get her any longer term help, and a subsequent suicide attempt succeeds.


5) Put your character into the position of having to make some awful choices. Perhaps s/he even chooses wrongly. War stories are an obvious place where this can happen, but it can happen anywhere. People sacrifice relationships with friends, lovers, family in order to accomplish some greater good. Alternately, people sacrifice the greater good to save their friends or families. These are impossible, lose-lose situations, and when people face them, they aren’t the same afterwards.



There’s a ready-made list of motivations you can give your character that are guaranteed to make them both less sympathetic and more "real." It’s even got a name  And of course, there are a ton of other sins to add to big seven. Bigotry. Fear. Insecurity. Social ineptitude. General pissiness. Like Tolkien’s road, the list goes ever on and on.


Can one be a nice person and a racist? Of course. Can one be a GOOD person and be a racist? That’s a far more problematic question, and to some extent, both "yes" and "no" can be correct answers. Because real people are hardly ever completely, unambiguously good or evil. Whichever way you play it, at the point you throw something like this into your story, you’ve created a huge moral ambiguity –  perhaps even a huge moral dissonance – for your reader.


And this dissonance can lead to a more subtle and interesting story. Let’s face it: Superman – perfect in all ways – is a boring character. Batman, seething with a venomously unquenchable thirst for vengeance, is a far more interesting character. Because he is (perhaps fatally) flawed. So let your characters be imperfect, let them fail. Let them do things that piss you off as a writer, and that will piss off the readers.


The risk, of course, is that by the time they are finished reading, the readers don’t have conflicted feelings. Instead, they just don’t care. Bad things happen to the hero? So what? Hated the protagonist, threw out the book. There are two antonyms for "sympathy." One is "hostility." The other is "indifference." Be very careful to avoid the second – that is the quickest way to kill off your readership.


There is a balancing act when you start down this road. There’s two things you need to keep very clearly in mind. First and foremost, you have to keep enough sympathy for your characters so that the reader cares. So that even if they dislike the characters, they still feel bad for them when things go badly, as they inevitably do, and cheer for them when they prevail at the end, as they occasionally do. You need to balance out the points where you generate sympathy and where you generate hostility.


The second (and also foremost) is to personalize their flaws and failings. The reader needs to not just see the characters doing bad/stupid/immoral/asinine things. They need to do it in a way that the reader can understand from their own experience. They should be things that we hate about people we love. The annoying and irritating traits of our spouses and friends, the co-workers that we like. People that we admire. Even – and perhaps most importantly – the things that, when we’re being really honest with ourselves, we hate about the person closest to us. Ourselves.




Bernie Mojzes is the father of a passel of short stories, the most recent of which to venture out into the world having the honor of headlining the Morrigan Press anthology, Dead Souls, launching this Saturday. He is also the author of the illustrated book, The Evil Gazebo, forthcoming later this year from Dark Quest Books. Visit him at http://www.kappamaki.com and/or http://brni.livejournal.com should you so desire.


39 thoughts on “Wright’s Writing Corner: Guest Blogger: Bernie Mojzes

  1. Wow…I have a hard time keeping things straight as it is…but very, very interesting points here. Some of it I do unconsciously, for example, Tony in the Eternal Cycle series…eminently motivated more my self-interest than what is right, but as a secondary character though on the “wrong” side, did illicit sympathy from the readership…particularly in book 2. Didn’t plan it that way, but there’s redemption for him in the end.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post


    • Tony is a wonderful, conflicted character. Through book 1 he’s the guy who could go either of two directions. He could fall completely or be redeemed, and we don’t know which way he’ll go. He’s very much the most interesting character in the book for me. I haven’t read book 2 yet (mea culpa), so don’t give too many spoilers please!

  2. But that’s not life.

    Life is complicated, messy and stupid, and so are people.

    Yes, and if you want life, you can get it twenty-four-hours a day, straight, uncut, undiluted, and with a realism that no work of fiction — or nonfiction — can think of approaching.

    The only excuse for literature is that it gives us something other than life. Something more.

    • I must say I am with you here. I want my stories to remind me how life should be rather than the worse side of how it is (because often, life does turn out well.)

      But the most interesting villains do often have some redeaming qualities…it is what makes their evil so tragic.

      • And the most interesting heroes have flaws that they trip over. It’s what makes their struggle compelling.

        Watch the original Bad News Bears some time to see this really come into play – each and every character has awfulness built in to them, which makes their eventual success in pulling together as a team all that much more compelling. They aren’t just bad players – there’s “just plain bad,” all the way from the coach to the tiniest player.

      • You know, there are times when I want Battlestar Galactica in my fiction– characters are stressed, unpleasant, unshaven, who do illogical things because they are not fiction. Other times, I want the heroes of yore, who know what is always right and what is not. The vast majority of the time, though, I want Firefly-style characters. They are flawed and make mistakes and sometimes do stupid things, but are sympathetic and likable and more often than not, do the right thing, even if it puts them in danger.

        When it comes down to it, I want my fiction to show me not what life should be, but what people can be when they try.

        • Yes, that’s it exactly. Firefly characters are “real” even when they’re sorta implausible. There’s nothing heroic in doing the right thing when there’s never any question about what the right thing is and whether you’re going to do it.

          • Right. Which is why Star Trek latter day Star Trek tends to annoy me– The Federation is some sort of alien plot; all of humanity’s been replaced with seraphic pod people by the twenty-fourth century.

        • Er. I’m not sure what I meant when I typed “Because they are not fiction.” o.0 Uh. Brain typo. Replace that with “not perfect” or “never have a chance to breathe” or something like that.

          • Incidentally, I really liked the “Because they are not fiction” line. The fact that the BSG people were asked to address the United Nations really drives home how fiction can be capital T True.

            Regarding “heroes of yore” – I particularly like taking that and turning it on its head. Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero is a perfect example of the hero who always knows what is right and what is not, but is usually totally wrong about it.

            If you enjoy twists like that, you might enjoy a little story I wrote a while back.

    • I’m not talking about realism as an aesthetic. I’m talking about having real, multidimensional characters.

      If all you are looking for is escapism, then cardboard characters are fine. I don’t personally find that to be more than life, but something less, but your mileage may vary.

      I like my escapist fantasies to give me something that provides me greater insight into my world and the people in it.

        • Not quite what I was trying to say.

          In the process of writing, the characters of necessity take on some element of what “I already know,” in order for me to make the character accessible.

          In the process of reading, the characters as interpreted through another writer can teach me new things about my world and the people in my life. New perspectives.

          But there’s more than that – in writing, you have to figure out WHY your character does X rather than Y, especially if Y is so frickin’ obvious that a caveman could do it. (oops, wrong commercial.) And THAT is also a learning experience, making explicit what was subconscious.

          • I think, if I understand, that you were not talking about realism, in the sense of a genre, but about three-dimensionalism in character…Real people have strengthts and weaknesses…giving our heroes a weakness and seeing them struggle to overcome them is more interesting than a character with no flaws to struggle again.

          • Yes. And the way the weaknesses or flaws are revealed can be very different, depending on the style of the piece, and the narrator. 3rd person omniscient might just come out and tell the reader, while first person unreliable might inform the reader by saying the exact opposite.

          • Happily ever after

            The ultimate happy ending is redemption, and it can happen to the most flawed of heroes. In fact, the more flawed, the happier the ending.

            Does that mean you get to have your (writerly) cake and eat it, too?

    • Well, by this point you’ve already gotten what Bernie was trying to say, but I’d like to point out that there is a very good reason to read realistic fiction of the sort where nothing unusual happens. In real life, we only get to experience our own life, and the life of our next-door neighbor is mostly inaccessible to us. A well-executed slice-of-life story will allow you to experience life in perspectives that you hadn’t previously considered.

      You can kinda get the same thing from LiveJournal if you’re lucky…

  3. Great ideas here. Thanks for sharing!

    My romantic lead suddenly became the antangonist because he decided that the ends justified the means and didn’t care how many eggs (read humans) needed to be broken in order to get what he wanted. Hey, the heroine and her family would be safe–what’s everyone’s problem?

    A friend of mine is writing a book (book 2–she already publshed book 1). The hero is flawed–he’s arrogant among other things, but to her surprise everyone _really_ likes her tormented maybe-badguy. He has so much more depth.

    I was always a Batman fan. Superman was just a comic, Batman was a greek tragedy.

    • I think this is partially because of the modern treatment of the two…in the earlier comics, the tragedy of Superman’s love for Lois Lane, whom he could not marry (not being the same species) was played up and made him more interesting.

      In fact, I’d say Superman with Lois is almost always interesting in one way or another…as soon as they take him away from Lois, he always seems to become just a cypher.

      • Yes, I agree, the Superman/Lois storylines were always my favorite. It bring to mind “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” an essay by James Blish? Ben Bova?, I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to look it up at this hour.

        I have story with a very old (3000 yrs) half faery and a human young lady and when I played around with them being in love and showing it–they were incredibly boring. The story needed external conflict to keep it interesting. When I decided that he simply couldn’t face loving another human, watching her age and die, that made things much more interesting. because he’s already in love and fightin it.

        Now I just need to sit my ass in the chair and write more.

  4. This was also very enlightening. I’ve noticed that people are always trying to be good but just happen to give in to the inner demons. You can make even what we would consider pure good people morally ambiguous, without even having them commit a truly bad deed but by showing them their internal criticism (or lack thereof to illustrate malice without intent) and internal struggle. For example, Pope John Paul II considered himself the worst sinner in the world even though we see him as a paragon of virtue and Mother Theresa constantly struggled with her faith but her faith was undoubtedly strong as iron when compared to the rest of us. So there are really two ways to introduce moral ambiguity, the sinner(inflicts pain on others to show his moral weakness/frailty) and the doubter(criticizes himself to show his moral weakness/frailty). I suppose you could also have the proud, a proud person would often fall into the sinner category(as would the doubter), but such a character would be separate from the two because his lack of doubt, even if he does good, would show him as an egomaniac and no one likes a braggart. Or you can go the easy way and make both sides commit atrocities, while making sure the antagonists have a higher body count than the good guys. This has given me much food for thought, thank you Mr. Mojzes.

    • Ah, well… the Pope’s infallible. I’d take his word for it… *evil grin* (But seriously, we’ll probably just have to agree to differ on whether he was a paragon of virtue. We may not even have the same conception of virtue, after all.)

      But back to the question at hand: yes, interior dialogue is really good for this sort of thing, as long as it’s not overused. That’s a personal preference on my part, of course. When possible, I try to use inadvertent body language to reveal interior thought. A flash of the real reaction before they regain control.

      If he had blinked at that moment, he would have never seen the revulsion that flickered across her face as he he put his arm around her.


      He started at the sound of gunfire. Hoping none had seen, he let a lazy grin settle in as he drew his pistol. “‘Bout time we had some action,” he said.

  5. Strength and Weakness

    I agree with most of this article — thank you for submitting it!

    It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from the Bible “…for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). While this typically applies to those who give up the evils of power and are humble and open to the work of the Almighty in them, I think there is room to interpret this more broadly: God takes flawed, weak, sinful people and uses (sometimes deeply buried) virtues to do extraordinary things with them.

    This is the hero that we all wish to be true: a hero like us…it’s the hope that in our ordinary lives with all our annoying faults and prejudices we might, someday, be thrust into extraordinary circumstances and by providence and choice do great things.

    Likewise, villains can often be very similar people: folks with normal, run-of-the-mill flaws (and sympathies) who have been given great power and influence and who magnify those faults a hundred-fold.

    What Mojzes is suggesting in this article is depth, depth, depth. Most people don’t want complete realism in a story, but they want something they can relate to at the same time. Real heroes, real setbacks, real failure, real villains, etc.

    Again, thanks for the article!

    • Re: Strength and Weakness

      Thank you, sir, for your kind words.

      Yes, I wasn’t talking about realism, but making something real. It’s not just their virtues that make people interesting, but their flaws as well. In fact, I think we sometimes love people because of their flaws rather than despite them.

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