Moral Pushups

On January 7, 2021, Belle Adora wrote, Whenever I am writing I always have some sort of moral to push. But I stress over pushing my point too much and causing it to be cliche or under involving it in my story and leaving the reader confused at the end. I tend to end up having a character recite a monologue where their views on something is pushed. I don’t know how to get my points across without it being dry. Any advice?

Two writers replied.

Melissa Mead: Try writing a story that doesn’t have a moral, just to see what it feels like. Often, if you focus on writing the story first, the moral will come through anyway.

Christie V Powell: I call it a theme instead of a moral, and it gets integrated into every element of stories: setting, characters, plot, etc. The theme might be hinted at, or maybe even said outright in a few key spots, but you don’t want to preach. People listen and learn much better through stories than sermons.

For instance, in my Mira’s Griffin, I wanted the theme to be about the value of communication. The theme is reflected in the setting because there are two different species that cannot communicate–and at first believes that the other is incapable. It’s in the characters, once some of the characters learn how to communicate and others don’t. It’s in the plot as the main characters work to teach their species to communicate with each other before they cause a war and kill each other. The main character doesn’t need to stand up and give a speech, because she’s living the theme.

These are spot on!

I don’t look for morals in novels. I’m most eager for engaging characters, an exciting plot, a solid setting, and good writing. But when I look at my own fiction, I do see a theme (as Christie V Powell says) that runs through them: kindness, which I suppose is my highest value—even thinking that chokes me up a little. I don’t believe humans have much if we take away kindness—and kindness means empathy. My crazy fairy Lucinda doesn’t intend to hurt anyone; she wants to help, but she has no empathy, so she can’t even guess what real help would mean. Mandy and other fairies, by contrast, don’t practice big magic because empathy constrains them; they imagine the chaos and suffering they could cause. They suffer just thinking of it and hold back.

I’m like Christie V Powell in that my characters don’t speechify. The kindness theme reveals itself in the way the plot plays out, in the lives of the characters, in what succeeds in the end and what fails. (I’d argue that kindness also underpins Mira’s Griffin as described.)

I was at my preachiest in The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which are both, moral-wise, about the evils of prejudice. In Lost Kingdom, MC Perry makes a speech about tyranny but not about prejudice, which isn’t addressed directly, but it’s implicit in everything. In Ceiling, antisemitism is discussed, as it would have been back then (and now), and it’s part but not all of what caused the Jews to be expelled from Spain. They were also taxed into such poverty that they were no longer economically useful to the monarchs, which made them disposable.

If we want to convey a moral and we want to make sure our readers get it, how do we do it while keeping them happy and engaged?

Louisa May Alcott stuffed a moral into every chapter and sometimes every page of her books for children, which I loved when I was little. My parents loved them too, because I turned into a paragon for as long as I was reading one! Back then, the morals didn’t bore me as they do now. I was eager for the lesson, whatever it happened to be. Sometimes Alcott’s perspective was feminist, and sometimes it was distinctly not.

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was also a moralist. I don’t agree with her doctrine of selfishness, which seems to me not to embody either kindness or empathy, but I loved her books while I read them. I plowed enthusiastically through her characters’ endless speeches on economic and political theory. During the reading, I saw the world as she did. A week or so later, I’d wake up.

(If you’re interested, her early novel We the Living is autobiographical, and the reader gets the backstory of her positions—and feels for her.)

Both writers, both dead, are still popular. So how did they do it?

I’m not sure, but I have some ideas.

We care about their characters, and part of what we love about them is their ideals, which is where the moral is found. The characters may fall short, as Jo March often does, but the falling short makes us love her more, because we often fall short too, but we like to think we pick ourselves up and keep going, as Jo does. The Rand heroines are mysterious and surprising—weird, really, but I liked that.

The novels of both authors are romances, and the moral is tied up with the romance. The girl and the guy can’t love each other if they don’t satisfy each other’s idea of what’s right. Jo can’t attach herself to Laurie, no matter how much I wanted her to, because he just isn’t upstanding enough, but he can be paired with Amy, who will whip him into shape, at least as I remember.

The moral in both books is usually stated in dialogue rather than narration, and the reader loves the speaker who puts the moral forward.

In Rand in particular, the stakes are high—the world, actually. The importance kept me glued to the story.

So we have: character, romance, a dialogue delivery system, and high stakes. Here are three prompts to try them out on:

  • The moral of the story of Robin Hood is that stealing is good if the poor benefit. The moral of Ayn Rand’s novels is that selfishness is good because it improves the human condition. Write a story with an Opposite-Day moral, like that lying—or cheating or laziness or greed, etc.—is good.
  • In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the moral is to listen to your mother. Or maybe it’s not to stray from the righteous path. Little Red doesn’t listen and does stray and matters don’t go well for her. But what would have happened if she stuck to the road? Write that story, and make sure it doesn’t go well. If you like, bring in a different moral for the reader to ponder.
  • Write a story spun off from Pride and Prejudice about Lydia’s life with Wickham. If you don’t have the book memorized, read a plot summary to get you going. Lydia has flouted the morality of her time. If you like, work in a moral for your story.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. This is super helpful, I have an easy time finding morals in my plot, but when I try to put them down on paper I can’t find them at all. I love the Red Riding hood prompt, going to add something like it to my plot list.
    How do you stay interested in a story? I loved my latest plot, but once I’d gotten like about eight pages in the story wasn’t going anywhere and I was worrying a ton about how there wasn’t anything happening and what was happening wasn’t relevant, and how I had like seven other beginnings in different drafts. So even though I plotted obsessively, it still kinda fell flat and I ended up saying I’d come back to it in a month. And this happens a lot. How do you keep yourself going?

    • When I first started writing, I had a lot more trouble with becoming disinterested in my stories and abandoning them. My characters weren’t very well-developed then, and even if my plot was pretty good, I think I often got bored with my characters. Now that my writing has developed more and my characters have improved, I come back to my stories for them. If I stick with a story, it’s usually because I love the characters and the world that I’ve created. It’s possible that, while your plot is really good, your characters might need more attention. Even if you have the best plot in the world, you need dynamic characters to add that extra spark. Quirky, eccentric characters are my favorite – but everyone likes something different. Try to think about the sort of characters you love in fiction and why you love them, then think about what you like to write and why, and then how you can combine all of that to create characters that really speak to you.

      • Thanks! Yes, I have a really hard time creating characters. I have the story all mapped out, with the POV character as a distant unknown girl. This will help me a ton. I’m off to make lists right now.

  2. Does anyone have any advice on how to write songs? My Camp NaNoWriMo story this April is going to feature a fictional musical, and I want to show most (if not all) of the songs, but I’m not super great at writing that sort of thing. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    • When I write songs, I write rhythmical poems (Not the same as rhyming) and then set them to music. I try and have around the same number of syllables per line, and same number of lines per verse. And having a catchy refrain is good too! Does your story need the whole song? If not, you could just write a refrain and not worry about the verses. I would also suggest trying to have the songs relate to the plot, for example:
      “If I could fly, oh where would I go.” sang Kendra. She gazed off at the majestic mountain in the distance. There, she thought. I would go there.
      Sorry, not a great example! Basically, I would think about your MC’s desires. Then write a poem that subtly reflects that, and set it to music. For good examples, you could look in Gail’s book Fairest. It has a lot of songs and singing. Hope this helps!

    • Beth Schmelzer says:

      A great songwriter, poet and MG novelist is Mary Amato. Check out her website and FB posts. Mary offers workshops at reasonable prices. Highly recommend her!

  3. I suggest having themes for your songs that reflect your MC’s desires, for example, if she really wants to swim like a dolphin, you could have a song about dolphins or people longing to be mermaids.
    For the actual writing, try writing a poem with a distinct beat and setting it to music. I find that the easiest kind of song to write.
    For most poems, verses aren’t repeated, but if you’re writing a song with a message, a refrain that puts the message out there will be helpful.
    Hope this helps!

  4. Does anyone have any advice for making a character arc gradual? Whenever I try to write one, it feels like my characters are exactly the same throughout the story, then are magically a different person all at once at the end. How can I present character growth in a scene-by-scene basis?

    • I use KM Weiland’s story structure to help me make milestones for the character to hit along their arc. The character arc and plot go hand in hand. I’ll share a brief rundown of the method I use, and a link where you can study more if you’d like.

      In the first quarter of the story, you show the character in their normal world, including the Lie they are going to overcome, and why their world supports that lie. In the second quarter, something changes, and they are “punished” when they act according to their Lie, and “rewarded” when they act better. At the midpoint, they learn the Truth that counteracts the Lie, but they haven’t given up their flaw yet. In the third quarter, they feel conflicted between the Lie that they’ve always believed and their new Truth. In the fourth quarter, the climax, the two come into conflict, and the character is forced to choose one or the other.

      More detailed info:

      • Milestones are a great idea, and probably the most popular. I haven’t done much of this yet, so not an expert or anything, but another way is to now and then drop a sentence into the story saying how they’ve changed, for example: ‘Once Marin would have shouted with joy. Now, she looked up, her eyes shining with delight, and nodded once from her chair.’
        Hmm, I might make that into a story.
        Another way is to have them changed by events, mistakes they make. Anne of Green Gables does an awesome job of that. She gets into a gazillion scrapes, but each one of them teaches her something, and she realizes that. The change in her isn’t exactly gradual, but it seems so when the other main character, Marilla, remarks on how she’s grown and how much quieter she is. So that’s yet another option, have an important secondary character remark on an important change.
        Change one small thing at a time. For instance, if your MC is really overeager and pushy, the rushing into danger without a second thought kind of person, you could have her almost die or something, and have that make her quieter.
        Of course, it also depends on your MC. If she is aware of what needs to change and is striving to change it, then you can just mark off successes and failures. If she doesn’t want to change, then the suggestions above are mostly for that.

    • Believe it or not, backsliding is your friend. If you’ve ever seen Last Airbender (the show, not the movie), just look at Zuko’s character arc. In season 1, he’s an obnoxious jerk with flashes of sympathy, in season 2, he begins to improve but reverts to his original behavior, and in season 3, he finishes his transformation. Another way to think about it is that at first, the character has to be prompted by others to do the right thing [or whatever your character arc is about]. Then they start doing the right thing because their prompter is watching, then they start doing the right thing because of what their prompter would say if they were there, and only then does it become a part of their character. But backsliding is essential. Nothing draws a reader in like the MC doing something stupid.
      And if you want to see character growth done badly, look at Kylo Ren. Your readers should not be happy to see the character receive a near-mortal wound. Zuko is that kind of character growth done well, and the only thing Kylo Ren’s character is growing is mold. Penicillin mold, but mold nonetheless.

  5. So, just curious, does anyone else have themes that constantly come up in their stories, whether or not they’re intended? Gail mentioned kindness. I think mine is interdependence: that different people need to combine their individual strengths and work together.

    I had a “search for home” one going for a while, but it’s not in my latest series. Kinda wonder what that says about my real life…

    • I definitely have themes that constantly come up in my work, and I usually don’t realize they’re there until the end! One is kindness. Another is friendship. For a while, a lot of my work had themes of grief, but not so much anymore. Ever since the pandemic, I’ve noticed unity has been coming up more. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think unity might actually be my most common one. I think the themes we subconsciously write can say a lot about who we are at the time.

    • I think mine is family, and anti-prejudice. Like I had a war against dragons in one of my books, and they ended up making peace and finding that each side were intelligent beings. Or it was supposed to… never finished it.

  6. Is there a post about magic systems? I’m trying to figure one out, for my Rapunzel retelling, but I’m making little headway.

  7. I’m starting a collection of inspirational writing quotes. Do you guys have some good ones or any recommended websites to look at?

  8. When I try to name a character, a place, a plant, anything that needs naming, and I try to invent a name, I usually end up with a name like Tricicianiea or something ridiculously long or complicated, and I can’t even remember how to spell it! And I can’t really find good names in all the websites for my fantasy characters, so I have to invent some. How do you name things?

    • I like to look at meanings. For characters, I have a database of names that have meanings that fit within my world–my clans each have an associated color and ability, so that gave me good material to look for. I also look at other languages to give my fantasy world a feel of “other”. Sometimes playing with google translate is fun.
      You can mix up the names of people and places you know. For example, I have a city named Shillave–I was living on South Hill Avenue at the time, and the street sign said S Hill Ave. Tranlan, Clarbridge, and Morgan’s Crossing are named after the last names of people who’ve been important in my life (Tran, Claridge, and Morgan).
      I also looked at wildlife terms. For instance, Gadwall (a species of duck) and Salix (the willow genus) for place names, and Tercel (a male falcon) as a last name.

      So, the other day, I painted a copy of my world’s map onto cardboard, and I accidentally dripped a spot of paint onto the ocean… now my kids are eager for me to write a story about Paint Drop Island.

    • For characters, baby name sites are my go-to. Nameberry is my favorite, because they have lots of name lists (even some for fantasy names!) and a search bar that lets you find names based on gender, origin, sounds, etc. You can find a lot of good names there that sound like they could belong in another world. Foreign names are also good, because they’re not too out-there but they feel a little otherworldly. A lot of times I pick names that have meanings that fit with the characters. Another option is to pick a real name and change a few letters, or rearrange it a little to make it seem different.

      For places, species, items, etc. I often use other languages. Google Translate is pretty good for that – it often doesn’t translate things quite right if you have long sentences or paragraphs, but it works pretty well for individual words. Latin is a good one to use, but I’ve also used Spanish, Italian, and French before. I find interesting words in other languages to use by translating random words that relate to my story – for instance, in a recent story I had a family of witches, so I used the French word for “witch” for their last name. Sometimes I’ll mix multiple words together to create something new.

      There are also a lot of fantasy name generators out there that you can use, at least until you can come up with something original that you really like.

      I think the most important thing is to keep it simple. If you’re forgetting the names, it’s probably too much for your reader. Make it fantastical, but also easy enough to remember and pronounce. Or, if a word is a bit hard to pronounce, it never hurts to include a pronunciation guide at the beginning or end of your story.

      Sorry for the super long reply, but I hope this helps!

        • I’d suggest keeping it simple, or only mentioning the parts that relate to your story and you can hint at anything else. For instance, if you have a girl who lives by an angry river, and if you have a river god in your story, the river god will probably be part of your story, because people will try and appease the river god so the river won’t flood. There are probably plenty of other river gods, but they won’t enter into the story. I’ve never actually put a religion into one of my stories, because it’s a really touchy topic sometimes, but I’ve played around with it sometimes, and the simplest ones are usually the best ones for me.

    • I found this article that brings up some good things to consider:

      Gail’s Ever does a great job at handling religion, in my opinion. I love that the story brought up questions and didn’t always answer them. Questioning became a central part of the main character, not treated like a bad thing.

      So far, most of my fantasy religions have been just a little bit in the background to add some worldbuilding flavor. The Sprites’ worship of Earth is the most developed: they have a creation story that Earth is a goddess, daughter of Sun and Moon, and they worship all three but mostly Earth. They believe that Sun created plants, Moon animals, and Earth people (or just other Sprites, which brings conflict). I’ve kind of been hesitant because religion is a big part of my life, and because it can be such a divisive topic.

      Another author to come to mind is Brandon Sanderson. He is very religious (my religion, actually), and he does a really good job at creating new ones for his books, while being respectful to real-life people.

    • I’ve been working on the same thing. The challenge for me is making a religion that reflects my beliefs, showing the heart of what I believe but with different traditions. You might want to learn about various religions from many cultures and combine elements you like.

  9. Thank You so much for answering my question, Gail! I have definitely progressed in writing less… but seeing as my go-to books are Alcott’s a lot of her moralistic style rubs off. And also since my religion is extremely important to me I tend to push the morals I hold dear. I am learning that there is a place for morals and a place for themes, the two are different and unique.

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