Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Truth AND Consequences

So, let's move away from the specific incidences of bad behavior that have been making the media rounds lately, and talk about bad behavior in writing. Specifically, consequences.

Young adult author Elena Johnson blogged today about the responsibility of authors to show authentic consequences for bad actions in fiction, and this got me thinking. I wholeheartedly agree that character actions should always have authentic consequences -- after all, authenticity is what I think all fiction writers should be striving for. But.
  • Sometimes people DO get away with bad behavior. Authentic consequences are not always the precise consequences we hope for. I tend to believe that bad people will eventually get their comeuppance... but man, sometimes the universe takes its sweet time getting that karmic retribution in gear.
  • Not everyone agrees on what constitutes "bad behavior." Take sports as an example. I think good sportsmanship is more important than winning the game, but plenty of parents would abandon good sportsmanship in a heartbeat if it meant winning the game and maybe getting that college coach to notice their kid... these are the parents who think they're RIGHT to punch the referee over a bad call! What would a YA book written by those parents look like, I wonder?
My daughter is two and a half. I sometimes seriously wonder about how I'm going to teach her right from wrong, because in real life, I often find that I am the only one playing fair in a given situation. I think I have the moral high ground, and everyone else in the game clearly thinks I'm weak and an idiot. Authentic sometimes really blows.

Additionally, I am a social liberal (leaning towards libertarian) who believes in many things that other people clearly think are atrocious. Again, I think I have the moral high ground... and so do the people who disagree with me. I'm sure, for example, that many writers (and readers!) would prefer that a young adult novel show some negative consequences befalling a teen character who had premartial sex. However, I don't think there's anything per se wrong with premartial sex among (mature, responsible) teens, and if I ever wrote book about such characters, I would write accordingly.

Authors, do your characters consistently suffer for their misdeeds, or do some go unpunished? And what about those controversial deeds where not everyone agrees on what's right or wrong? Do you worry about reader reaction, wondering if your ideas of right and wrong will come across as too conservative, or not conservative enough? Does this issue play into your ideas of who your ultimate reading audience will be?

Readers, would you prefer authentic consequences even if the bad guy gets away with it, or do you prefer the morally satisfying tales where good always triumphs and evil always fails?


  1. I definitely prefer authentic consequences. But then again, I'm not always for the happiest of endings. I like it when I put the book down and think about the ending for days.

  2. Whether or not we feel that premarital sex or teen sex is morally wrong, I think it would be irresponsible to portray it as being completely without consequences. The vast majority of teenagers do think there aren't consequences to their actions.

    Now, that doesn't mean that every book has to be moralizing, or that every teenager who has sex in a book has to go to hell, get pregnant and come down with a fatal STD (in that order). There are deep emotional consequences and implications of sex that nobody I knew in high school was prepared to handle. Many of my friends regretted their sexual experiences, some even seemed poisoned against members of the opposite sex.

    (I dare say, then, that there were fewer mature, responsible teenagers in my graduating class of 200 than there were girls who graduated as mothers or mothers-to-be. I went to a rather innercity high school; there were at least a dozen girls with children or pregnant at graduation.)

    Yeah, in a YA romance, we're probably not going to follow the characters through the end of their relationship (talk about a crappy ending)—but odds are pretty good for at least one of the kids that this isn't their first relationship.

  3. I loved ETHAN FROME for this reason. All of the characters made bad choices and all of them paid for them appropriately.

  4. I like authentic consequences for the character. As you've said, some people get away with poor choices. If the character is well established, I think the outcome of his/her action will naturally play itself out.

    By the way, I'm originally from NM, so thanks for the fun road sign. Reminds me of home.

  5. Yay! You brought the discussion here too. I find this a fascinating topic. I agree with you too. I totally agree that not everyone agrees on what bad behavior is. For me, in a YA book, and as a YA author, I've chosen to go with giving authentic consequences to my characters who do illegal things. Because I think most of us can agree that that type of behavior can be labeled as "bad." What do you think?

    So not pre-marital sex. But underage drinking and driving. Doing drugs in high school. I do wish texting while driving was illegal, because I find it dangerous enough that it could kill other people.


  6. I think authentic consequences are good if they play into the story you're telling.

    That sounds like an odd statement, but let me explain. As writers, all we compose are events the way we THINK they'll happen. Not the way they might ACTUALLY happen. In romance novels, for example, we only see one possibility to the hero's flowering words (the heroine can just as easily think him a twit and shove him off a bridge as she can melt: all depends on the author).

    So if "authentic consequences" (whatever that means) work with the tone of the tale you're writing, then by all means write it that way. If they don't -- if the villain needs to get away with something bad -- let them.

  7. Jordan, although I said I had no problem (in theory) with sex between mature, responsible teenagers... I don't know a whole lot of real-life teenagers who are FULLY emotionally mature and responsible. Hell, sex has consequences for fully-grown adults who can't handle how their relationships change (or don't change!) afterwards. As a practical matter, if I was writing about teen sex, I doubt it would be smooth sailing and an instantly happy ending for the teens.

    ElanaJ, I know some people who wouldn't get worked up about pot smoking among older teens, but I think it makes perfect sense to have illegal acts lead to consequences in novels because illegal acts are the most likely to lead to consequences in real life society. It's a nice bright line (illegal/legal) in an otherwise gray area (immoral <=> moral).

    And texting while driving would definitely lead to dire results in any book I wrote!

  8. Your major example is also very culture-specific. Premarital sex is far more sensitive in North America than many other places. I think it fair to say readers of a European novel would take for granted a teenage couple are having sex and wouldn't even bother mentioning it unless it was relevant to the plot.

    Conflict and moral ambiguity is the stuff of great fiction. You certainly don't want to cut it! Everyone reinforces what they think is good behaviour though. Wen I write I keep in mind my daughters are going to read it one day! My female protagonists are all strong and refuse to be victims.

  9. I do believe bad behavior will bring about consequences. But, being a Christian, I believe we can be redeemed and often those consequences end up being blessings.

  10. Definitely realistic consequences are my preference. Life is life. I read to find out more about life, thus, I don't want something false presented to me and I like to think neither do my readers.

    No doubt my morals and beliefs will come out in anything I write, regardless of how I try to structure it.

  11. Yes, Gary, I did have a very USA-centric example there, but I was trying to pick something that wasn't too much of a hot-button issue! I didn't want us to get off topic talking about whether a particular activity was, in fact, right or wrong...