Friday, March 25, 2011


By Barbara Fleming

Whatever genre a writer works in, his or her values underlie every single word. Mystery writers weave tales of good and evil; much of fantasy is taken up with the same struggle (witness Harry Potter, for example), and classic literature deals with the nature of humans, the meaning of life--all the deep philosophical questions that we resolve (or don't resolve) within ourselves by crafting a value system.

Wherever that system comes from--religion, culture, philosophy or somewhere else--it will permeate the author's writing. To take one example, one of my highest values is respect. I treat everyone I encounter with respect, unless I am given reason to do otherwise, and I expect to be treated similarly. I treat everyone as an individual, not part of a group or class. In my historical novel, Journeying, the principals are an interracial couple who encounter prejudice and ill treatment but always respond, as far as they can, as one individual to another, and respectfully instead of with anger and a desire for revenge. When one character does aim to seek revenge, he does not complete the act; he cannot.

Of course, the essence of fiction is conflict. I wonder if readers notice how frequently those conflicts have to do with differing values--Hamlet's inner war with his conscience, to take a classic example. I could fill this piece with other examples of contemporary or classic fiction that illustrate this point, but that is not the direction I am going.

Rather, I am going to briefly consider how the values reveal themselves.

If an underlying value is love, can the protagonist forgive transgressions by those he loves? Can she take a risk, perhaps a life-threatening one, in the name of love?

If the value is family, do the members of the family support and uphold each other as long and as richly as they can? When circumstances seem to tear them apart, does the family as a value still hold up through how the characters act, speak and interact?

Whatever the value, if it is a positive one, is the reader disposed to like the characters that live by it and dislike those who don't? Through their words and actions, do they reveal the value, or their struggle with it?

It is never, of course, that simple. Fictional families, like real ones, are dysfunctional, sometimes unforgiving, sometimes disconnected. And there are many kinds of families. Still, there is a thread in the story that ties some members of the family together, regardless. People who love each other often hurt each other dreadfully, and sometimes they do not recover from that damage. Still, there is a thread in the story that affirms the priceless treasure that is love. People who treat others with respect are not always treated in kind; indeed, sometimes they suffer for their values. Still, there is a thread in the story that affirms the positive nature of continuing to try, despite the odds.

No good writer tells the reader directly what her values are. The characters do that; events and their outcomes support those values, however subtly. Moralistic tales seldom get published these days. Nonetheless, what we value is the foundation of waht we write. Great writers create memorable characters who exemplify their values, and the characters that live on in our hearts and minds are those that share the values we hold dear.


Joyce Elson Moore said...

Barbara: I read your post with interest, and was glad you addressed the need for an author to avoid "preaching". I have closed many a book, unfinished, when I sense the author is trying to impose their values on my, whether political, religious, or personal. When I'm not reading non-fiction for research, I read for pleasure, to follow the characters and their lives. If I want a lecture, I go to a seminar at a nearby university. Your point, though, that an author's values underlie characters' motivations is undoubtedly true. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I agree that without conflict we don't have a good novel. The clash of differing value systems does make for strong conflict.

I also agree with Joyce. We don't want to be preachy in our novels. A lot of writers can't resist and it is a turn-off. Subtlety is an art.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Barbara. I've thought about this a lot as I've tried to construct my own stories. And I've thought about it relative to what is being published. When you publish something, you're putting your values on display for all to see. Sometimes, I think some writers focus on the money or the publishing contract and forget that what they publish reflects on who they are. Although I suppose that's why there are pseudonyms. You can write what you please and not claim it as your own.

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