Fight for What’s Right: Moral Causes in Fantasy Worlds

We all want our protagonists to be engaging and for our readers to root for them.  One way to achieve this is to give the protagonist a goal which the reader sympathises with.

For some, it is to save a life or find something of value. For others, it is to change the world, to pursue a grand cause and improve life for thousands of people.

But it isn’t always that simple.

What cause do you pick, and how do you make it relevant and believable?

The Problems with Modern Values

Fantasy has, throughout its existence, been used to promote or present issues which affect modern day readers. Fantasy has the capacity to tackle sensitive issues without being too immediate, too raw. And because of this capacity, it is easy to be tempted to put in modern values and modern causes based upon the author’s ideals.

The problem with this is that is it difficult to do well. Modern values are not the same as those that were held in the past; as technology and society changes, so too do values and beliefs. And with many fantasy novels set in pre-industrial worlds, it is not always suitable to have a character fighting for gender equality, democracy, an end to the death penalty or the abolition of slavery.

Our values do not match the values of past societies, and that’s because the scenarios are different. For example, sex before marriage was deeply frowned upon a century ago because that could result in a child growing up fatherless, and that meant the mother would have to work and not have as much time to care for it. Sex before marriage now is far less controversial because thanks to contraception, sex does not need to result in pregnancy, and it is not unusual for a mother to have a career. There are safety nets in place to support single mothers – maternity leave, crèches, child benefits and support groups. And as people like JK Rowling have proven, a single mother can be a success.

Change Does Not Happen in a Vacuum

Now you’ve selected a cause for your character which is appropriate to the values of the society you’ve completed, you need to lay some groundwork. The great thinkers of the past did not claim to have achieved great things independently of everyone else. As Isaac Newton once famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” So don’t have your protagonist realise out of the blue that Slavery Is Bad when nobody else has ever realised this before.

Take the Athenian democracy for example. The actual move from tyranny to democracy in the late 6th century BCE was a fairly quick one. In the latter years of the joint rule of Hippias and Hipparchus, the sons of Pisistratus, they were becoming increasingly unpopular – and increasingly controlling. After the assassination of Hipparchus, Hippias fled to Persia and Athens soon became a democracy under the guidance of Kleisthenes.

Imagine that’s your novel. What does it lack? An explanation for democracy, rather than a new single ruler or an oligarchy taking over. Part of that is the personality of the individuals involved, like Kleisthenes. But part of it is groundwork.

The groundwork I’m talking about is history. How the tyrants gained power is part of it, since before Pisistratus secured his rule at his third attempt, the city was factionalised, torn between the immense influence and power of three major players – Pisistratus, Megacles and Lycurgus – with no influence from anyone else. But most of the groundwork for democracy came with the reforms of Solon, almost a century before, giving citizens greater influence in the running of the city and the power to elect officials and hold them to account. Arguably, the development of the courtyard house in the centuries before even Solon created the seeds of equality, as each adult male citizen was the ruler of his own house which conceptually, if not in reality, made him equal to every other male citizen.

So when you are creating your worlds and stories, think about what groundwork might have been laid in the past which has influenced attitudes in the present. It doesn’t even need to be things the historians of your world are aware of – I doubt Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE, would have considered house design part of the development of the Athenian democracy – but it does need to be there, because change doesn’t come from a vacuum.

Causes Take Time

The status quo is a powerful thing. Keeping things the same is comfortable and easy. It doesn’t need you to think about it and it means you don’t have to constantly change how you do things. So when your character comes along looking to change things, the greatest opposition they might come across could be from ordinary people who don’t like your protagonist stirring the pot, who are happy with the way they live their lives and don’t want to join a cause or get in trouble or change the way they do things – or worse, give up their own privilege and luxury for someone else’s cause.

And since the status quo has such power, a lot of causes in the past have taken a long time. Obliterating slavery, for example, is an ongoing goal in the modern world, and one which has ancient roots. It was illegal, in Christian-controlled Europe in the middle ages, to sell a Christian as a slave into a non-Christian culture – a law passed repeatedly by the Catholic Church in the early medieval period. In 1102 the slave trade was made illegal in England, a law long forgotten centuries later when the trade of African slaves throughout the world and primarily to America began.

The fight then to end slavery was a long one. Quakers in Pennsylvania protested slavery as early as 1688, Vermont (then an independent nation) abolished it in 1777, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807 made the trade of slaves, though not ownership, illegal within the British Empire. Slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. It was another 32 years before slavery was illegal throughout the United States. It wasn’t until 1948 that freedom from slavery became a UN-sanctioned human right.

The point here is that whatever your protagonist is campaigning for, don’t just hand it to them on a plate. It takes steps to reach, as with my example of slavery above. There were victories along the way, and there were times when things went backwards. If you give your protagonist too great a goal you might damage the believability of their struggles – or trivialise the enormity of what they set out to achieve.

There isn’t any reason to rush things. If the cause is great enough, why shouldn’t it take the protagonist’s entire life – or even generations? Or if you want to keep the story within a limited time frame, stop it after a landmark has been reached, a point which can be called a victory that has been fought and struggled for, but one which does not yet meet your character’s ambitions – or your own values. Progress has been made; and it doesn’t hurt to leave space for a sequel.

Conclusion

When giving your character a grand cause, consider whether it is appropriate to the society your protagonist is part of. Give the other members of that society, past and present, some credit in having considered the cause worthwhile before your protagonist came along. Make the fight for what is right a struggle worthy of a great novel by giving it a timescale appropriate for what must be achieved.

How have you incorporated great causes into your novels? What other advice would you give to writers regarding grand causes? And where have you seen another author handle these situations well – or poorly?

Alice has other articles and reviews available on her website at aliceleiper.wordpress.com.

Alice Leiper is an eager reader of fantasy and aspires to become a professional writer. She blogs about her experiences, observations and opinions on writing and fantasy on her website, Ally's Desk.

19 Responses to Fight for What’s Right: Moral Causes in Fantasy Worlds

  1. A moral cause is a great way to add dimension to an existing plot, or  get a fun subplot going. Only bit I disagree with is the assumption that a fantasy world would follow history simply because it’s set up on a historical premise (a medieval setting, for example). Most fantasy worlds (with the rare exception of the really well-researched gritty/dark fantasy) presume most of our current modern values and standards unless they’re specifically trying to make a point about a specific issue. And when they do try to be ‘authentic,’ it still tends to gloss over a lot of historic realities. 
    ((And many make pop-culture assumptions when trying for that same authenticity. For example, there were pre-industrial and ancient societies where single women could hold land and run businesses, just as there those where women had incredibly limited opportunities.))
    A lot of it, I think, is to make the fantasy world more glamorous – who wants an illiterate heroic hero with rotting teeth and stinky breath who gets a chamber pot dumped on him from an open window above as he’s walking down an alley? So you get a lot of whitewashing. 
    Many of my favorite escapist fantasies just presumed basic health standards, living sanitation levels, and social values (usually by introducing modern conveniences through magic). 
    So I guess the tl;dr of my comment would be to not be afraid to play around with what’s possible in pre-industrial settings, as long as you think things through and it makes sense within your specific world-building. :)

  2. I recall once I was given a challenge to create a character with a very off-beat mission in life – one that would make the average person scratch their head or say ‘wtf??’ – but I had to make sure people sympathized with the character’s cause and come to believe in it themselves. And that’s the beauty of persuasive writing. :)

  3. Consider how the Holy Bible — which nearly a billion people look to asthe blueprint for moral guidance — is full of outdated ideas.  This isespecially true with the Old Testament where you will find many strangenotions of morality.

    • LuckyQuinton Brilliant example, yes.In a small society beset on all sides by rival groups and united by worship of one god, worship of another could be community-breaking, divisive, and eventually lead to this group being overrun by those around it; in the modern western world tolerance of others’ views and beliefs is more likely to be upheld as the moral choice.

  4. I consider the moral dilemmas essential to my writing.  It’s what gives the scenario tension.  Without moral ambiguity the scenario seems too pat.  The world is not black and white, nearly everything is a gray area.  Fine, thoughtful article.  Thanks for making me think more about this aspect of writing.

  5. You make some excellent points in this article Alice.  Morals and societal values are always fluid.  Many of our most cherished principles would be entirely out of place in another place and another time.  Having a sense of history certainly helps in this area.  It might even be time well spent to research some of the great societies in the past to gain insight and ideas.

  6. Great piece! I like to really flesh out my protagonist’s ’causes.’ Often I might be guilty of going into too much detail and history on how the character arrived at his or her mission in life. But point well taken. Thanks!

  7. Great piece! I like to really flesh out my protagonist’s ’causes.’ Often I might be guilty of going into too much detail and history on how the character arrived at his or hermission in life. But point well taken. Thanks!

  8. While I have not actually had any book published yet, I appreciate what you are saying here. It makes a LOT of sense! It also shows that in order to have a convincing and knowledgeable story, it is necessary to do the right research and learn the facts of past happenings in history.

  9. In my books about the civilization of intelligent termites, the Champion and his Companions go on a quest that retells Greek myth and certain medieval legends in terms of that culture.  One of my main topics is the value of peace over war.  In my retelling of the Trojan War, nobody wins. 
    And when I was researching The Song of Roland I was struck by how ancient the struggle between Islam and Christianity was.  In my series, there are two termite peoples who call each other “infidel” because for one of them the Goddess, The Highest-Mother-Who-No-Name, dwells in the sky, and for the other, she dwells in the ground.  They slaughter each other over this inconsequential difference, even though my main characters try to convince them to stop.  It made a great epic tale, better than you can imagine.

  10. I do have moral issues in my story, simply because I don’t think it would be possible to have one without them, but I am trying to avoid making them preachy. It is difficult, but there must be the consideration that, just as change happens over time, there are always certain people who hold a different view than others around them, and when those people are in power, change happens.

    • Tom Austin Yes, good point; change through belief in what is morally correct. How do you avoid preachyness? I think the trick is to make it a real moral dilemma, not one where side A is obviously right and side B is obviously wrong, one where both have valid points and advantages in certain situations, and give the main character reasons to personally support either side, to face the dilemma herself and ultimately make a decision about it while acknowldging its downfalls.
      For this reason I avoid making moral issues in fiction of things I believe in strongly. How can one avoid being preachy in fiction if you want to be preachy in real life?

  11. I think this is true for stories written about real time periods too. Judging others on the moral and political expediences of today is empty argument.

  12. I sometimes address moral causes in my stories, but it’s not something that I intentionally set out to do.  More often than not the “grand causes” just materialize as I’m writing, but I try to keep them below the surface.  Otherwise, it risks coming off as preachy.

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