When I wrote the post last Monday about Speculative Fiction And Contemporary Culture, I had no intention of making a multi-part article. Until I read a line from The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass.
Well, “line” is not the right term. One section of the book is entitled “Stirring Higher Emotions.” In it, Maass does say, “Why not create characters that inspire us to a high degree?” (p 42) Meaning, why not create characters that we would greatly admire if they were real people—characters that are willing to risk their reputation or their position of power or their wealth for a selfless purpose.
I think, for example of Bobby Green Jr., Lei Yuille, Titus Murphy, and Terri Barnett, the four residents of South Central Los Angeles, who came to the aid of Reginald Denny, a truck driver who was pulled out of his rig during the Rodney King riot, and severely beaten. Those four men risked everything, including their very lives, to rescue Denny—a stranger, a man of a different race—and get him to a hospital. They were contemporary “Good Samaritans.”
Are admirable characters like that in our stories?
Or how about eighteen-year-old Brandt Jean, who forgave the very person who had shot and killed his older brother in his own apartment?
Donald Maass draws on something Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1771 in a recommendation to a friend to include works of fiction in his library:
He said this because “everything is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any . . . act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deep impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also.” In other words, virtuous acts by fictional characters inspire us to be virtuous, too. (p 43)
Perhaps we don’t include characters of high virtue in our fiction because we suspect we can’t make them believable. After all, our culture has been shaped by the revenge mentality of “Go ahead, make my day” from the 1983 Clint Eastwood movie, Sudden Impact. There was a hero who wasn’t about forgiving or rescuing a perceived enemy.
Following on it’s heels, the 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Terminator famously used the line “I’ll be back,” before a scene of violence and carnage. Nothing about repentance or forgiveness. Just a might-makes-right, hate-them-they-are-your-enemies type of movie.
And this is the hero we see over and over.
In our divided culture, with cancel culture nipping at the heals of free speech, are virtuous heroes believable?
They can be, if we write them with proper motivation. So perhaps the question is, do we want to write virtuous characters? Because, in truth, virtue may not be admired by everyone. Not all the comments, for example, to the video of Brandt Jean are positive. Some are outright critical.
So, undoubtedly, the sacrifice or forgiveness of a character might actually bring some negative reaction. But if we want to have an impact on culture through our speculative fiction, I think standing for virtue rather than simply playing along with “heroes” who are ordinary and not extraordinary, will have a greater impact.
From Maass again: More recently, Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others have scientifically demonstrated that fiction can have an effect called moral elevation, which affirms that reading about good people causes us to be better ourselves. We make better choices when character inspire us to do so.
So how can writers speak into today’s troubled culture, whether dealing with the political divide, racial unrest, dealing with a pandemic, economic concerns, or what have you? One way has nothing to do with re-creating a similar problem in our fictitious world, but rather, creating a virtuous hero who makes hard, selfless choices that can inspire readers to go and do likewise.