Is Fiction Inherently Immoral?

April 18, 2008 | 69 comments
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“The truest poetry is the most feigning.”

Lying is immoral. Fiction doesn’t lie because the author is honest that he’s inventing. (Though sometimes authors can edge up to the line with “autobiographical novels” or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or Wolf’s I Am Charlotte Simmons that the author claims is based on research and fact.)

What fiction does do is to seduce the reader into forming attachments to people who don’t exist. Is this immoral? My gut says darn straight it is. And what’s worse is that the best fiction is the most guilty. The more deeply realized the characters, the stronger and more genuine the attachment.

But if fiction is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Any way out of the dilemna? The best one that I can see is to deny that fiction forms attachments and relationships with people who don’t exist.

Perhaps all characters in fiction are really a revelation of the author and of the people he knows. Mr. Bennett is Jane Austen and this one neighbor she had.

Or in most fiction the characters are really more archetypes or roles than they are individual people. It is really mankind–or that part of mankind for whom that role is a possibility or a reality–whom the reader is learning to understand and appreciate.

Maybe even the most deep and real characters in fiction, the ones that most persuade you that this is a real man or a real woman or a real child, though you know better, perhaps even these characters when compared to the depth and complexity of any living soul are also just roles and archetypes.

Or maybe among all the teeming masses on the numberless worlds, even the most individual character in fiction has a counterpart in life. I don’t mean that there is actually someone who has lived the story. I mean that there is someone who is the person you’ve come to love or hate, who would have lived the story just as it was lived if it had happened to them. For reasons that would take too long to explain, I sometimes even think that we could not be influenced by fictional characters unless this were so.

P.S. I have a wilder notion yet, but I’ll keep it to myself.

P.P.S. I’m going to be trigger happy deleting comments that contain ridicule, mockery, or incredulity. FYI. If you have an objection to that email me.

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69 Responses to Is Fiction Inherently Immoral?

  1. mpb on April 18, 2008 at 8:52 am

    wow, this idea seems like a real stretch.

    when i read anna karenina, it’s not Levin who i become enamored with, it’s Tolstoy’s *notion* of Levin. what reader possibly fails to recognize the difference?

    i mean, maybe we’re saying the same thing here, but it seems like you’re trying to smoke out a dilemma that doesn’t really exist.

    [Ed.--this comment is the kind that will get removed. Take out the first and probably the third sentence and it wouldn't be. Its left up both for informational purposes and because the P.P.S. wasn't in the post when it was added]

  2. queuno on April 18, 2008 at 9:15 am

    I’d have to go back and check, but I thought Wolfe based his IACS research on interviews with college students, including his own children.

    A larger question for me, however, is not whether or not they are “lying”. Is there an adequate expression for fantasy? If t that fiction? Could you take autobiographical elements and transpose them into a fantastic element? Can you represent someone in a novel the way that you “want” them or envision them to be? And is that wrong? I don’t think so — as long as the author isn’t representing it as “truth”, in which case I don’t see the problem. I don’t see a problem with forming an attachment to people that “kind of” exist, as long as we recognize that they are fantasies.

    I think back to Paul H. Dunn – why did so many people get so bent out of shape? Because they believed the stories to be true. Because they believed that here was a man who really did these things and wow, he’s also a Mormon, and a great one. And when the house of cards fell, people felt betrayed that they had fallen for a fantasy.

  3. Eric Russell on April 18, 2008 at 9:24 am

    “What fiction does do is to seduce the reader into forming attachments to people who don’t exist. Is this immoral? My gut says darn straight it is.”

    Adam G., I think you need a better argument than your gut here. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s obviously immoral in any sense.

  4. Neal on April 18, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Well, another way to look at it is that by so doing you increase your capacity to form attachments to other real people–sort of moral calisthenics.

  5. queuno on April 18, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Closer to home – why did so many people get so upset at the Banner of Heaven blog? Because people thought it was real bloggers, with real problems, existing in the real world, and identified with them. Then when it was exposed, they felt betrayed.

  6. mpb on April 18, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Sorry for the incredulity, Adam :-). Now that I think about, this probably isn’t the first time I’ve ever heard of this idea. Can you or anyone else refer me to some criticism or philosophy that fleshes this out some more? Seriously…

  7. queuno on April 18, 2008 at 9:29 am

    (Disclaimer – I loved BoH. I did think they were real people at first, but then I took on the idea that they were exaggerating their lives for the sake of readership. But I don’t think I ever felt burned when it was exposed, because I really hadn’t invested much of myself into thinking they were 100% genuine. Or maybe I just think that way now.)

  8. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Q. Can we get a ruling from the bench on Banner of Heaven as a thread topic?

    A. Yes.

    Q. Well?

    A. (much gaveling) It’s excluded.

    —–

    You heard the court. Lets not get into the Banner of Heaven hoax here.

  9. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Can you or anyone else refer me to some criticism or philosophy that fleshes this out some more? Seriously…

    I can’t, because all I’ve got is a gut sense that there is something wrong with getting someone attached to a non-existent person, even if the someone formally knows that the non-existent person is non-existent. Like you, I’m hoping the collective wisdom of the Bloggernacle can point us in some interesting directions.

  10. William Morris on April 18, 2008 at 9:43 am

    “Perhaps all characters in fiction are really a revelation of the author and of the people he knows.”

    And perhaps all characters in fiction are really a revelation of the reader and of the people he knows.

    This is not to provoke a debate on reader response theory, but simply to state the more modest claim that our experience can affect what is revealed by the author to us. My Levin is related to, but not the same as mpb’s Levin.

  11. William Morris on April 18, 2008 at 9:44 am

    Or to put it another way: it’s not just the author who is lying.

  12. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 9:45 am

    And perhaps all characters in fiction are really a revelation of the reader and of the people he knows.

    Good add.

  13. William Morris on April 18, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Which if anything complicates the question of morality — if bits and pieces of ourselves and the people we know are the sediment upon which and the stream bed within which a character flows, is the attachment even more wrong because the non-existent person has a few cells, the shape of an eyebrow, some DNA sections from people who exist?

  14. Casey on April 18, 2008 at 9:59 am

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3994 sort of addressed what Brigham Young thought about this.

  15. Mark B. on April 18, 2008 at 10:32 am

    I find myself deeply attached to the father in one of the greatest pieces of short fiction ever spoken or written, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And I aspire to be as good (and heaven knows I fall way short) as the Good Samaritan.

    Two great pieces of short fiction. Extraordinarily strong attachments. If such attachments were not to be had, then what’s a heaven for?

    As to your dilemma: I don’t see it. But I’ve never seen “dilemna” either, except in your post.

  16. Jeremy Gayed on April 18, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Adam, it looks like the root of your dilemma is the assumption of a neccesary relationship between truth and corporeal existence. A story doesn’t have to be about events that actually happened, or people who actually existed, to be true. And, if the story is true, how can reading it be immoral?

  17. Norbert on April 18, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Oo, Mark B beat me to it. I would add Job to that list.

  18. Peter LLC on April 18, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Indeed, Mark B., that’s what I was thinking re: parables. I don’t see, prima facie, anything inherently immoral with a made-up story, especially ones that inspire their readers to strive for higher planes and what not.

  19. William Morris on April 18, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I agree with Mark B’s comments, but would like to point out that parables operate differently than short stories and novels. The characters in parables are always figures and never quite characters. Those in fiction are supposed to have a patina of reality (no matter how thin).

    That’s what makes Kafka’s parabolic fiction so confounding.

  20. Latter-day Guy on April 18, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Oh, Norbert, Job? Really? If there is one book of scripture I could do without… but to each his own.

    Interesting premise. For me fiction is like visual art. A painter can create a landscape that causes me to react emotionally, even if that landscape does not exist anywhere but in the artist’s head. I don’t think that creating beauty, even if unrealistic, is immoral. You ought to consider “Mythopoeia” by JRR Tolkien. There, his premise is that anyone who creates myth (or, more broadly, fiction) becomes a sub-creator, a godly role.

    “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”

    This poem helped convince CS Lewis of the truth of Christianity. Indeed, the poem was written in response to Lewis’ comment that “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.”

    Tolkien has had me convinced on this point for many years. Here’s the poem.

  21. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Adam,

    I’ll say you are right in one thing. Yes, fiction is by definition not completely true. But as William Morris said, it’s not just the author who is “lying”, as fiction also demands the willing suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story. As an aside, telling of stories, both true and fiction (think myths and oral traditions) is a basic component of human culture, family life, and society. As others pointed out, it also appears in the scriptures, and in some aspects of our temple worship.

    In my mind, there is value in the telling of stories to teach experiences vicariously, and at lesser cost to the reader or listener. Truths are learned, and a culture or traditions values passed from one individual to another, or generation to generation.

    Since someone used Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as an example (relating to the idea of Levin), you can relate to the story of a somewhat distant and preoccupied husband, his younger wife who feels neglected, and a story of infidelity and its consequences. That novel also compares it to the lives of the Oblonsky’s who are dealing with the husband’s infidelity, and the courtship and ultimate marriage of Levin and Kitty, set against a backdrop of social change in Russia.

    How much is based on people Tolstoy really knew doesn’t matter, as ultimately you find many characters in many situations and can examine your own life and hopefully make better decisions.

    I don’t find that immoral at all. I do, however, reserve the right to blast poorly written fiction whose characters are poorly developed cardboard cutouts, and where the lessons the author intends to teach overshadows the story, essentially not trusting the reader to understand the story. That’s immoral.

  22. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Adam, it looks like the root of your dilemma is the assumption of a neccesary relationship between truth and corporeal existence

    A character can be very true-to-life, teach truths, and embody truths, without being real. The only false thing is our affection for the character, because the character as such does not exist (unless you accept one of the alternatives I’ve laid out).

    Perhaps others read differently than me. But when I read fiction I can only enjoy and profit from it to the extent I allow myself to experience the characters and incidents as real

  23. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Latter-day Guy,
    I’m not sure Tolkien and I are addressing precisely the same concern. To the extent we are, I don’t see anything inconsistent between my justification and Tolkien’s, though his is more deeply-expressed. In fact, in Leaf by Niggle Tolkien seems to express a hope that subcreation would be made real by God.

  24. Dane on April 18, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Is this the same moral issue as establishing relationships in video game worlds? Or, perhaps even closer, in the not-so-distant future when robots are able to mimic people to the point that we build relationships with them? Will it be immoral to design your friends (or your family)?

  25. Jeremy Gayed on April 18, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Is our affection towards character, or the idea of the character? I contend the latter. And even if the former is true, what of it? What moral implication is there to bear affection towards a person who doesn’t exist? I’m morally certain that you bear a great deal of affection for historical characters, such as (to hazard a guess) Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. If future historians were to find that such persons never existed, would that call into question the morality of the affection you felt for them when you believed they did; or the affection you might continue to feel even after learning that they never lived? Are you contending that a child errs morally by having an imaginary friend?

  26. Blain on April 18, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Truth isn’t such a simple thing that you can draw a line and say “what’s on this side is true, and what’s on that side is false.” Any truth we tell has some lack of completeness which has the significant danger of leading to a misunderstanding of that truth. Sometimes, we can pack more truth in a way that can be better understood in fiction than in a non-fictional setting, Jesus taught through parables, not through lectures.

    Lying is not about telling things that aren’t true — it’s about deception. You can deceive just as effectively by telling the truth as you can by telling untruths — Heinlein’s three methods of lying explain that pretty well. In fact, misleading with the truth gives you the advantage of not having to remember the fabrications you lied with (since you didn’t fabricate) and protection from being caught, since what you said was true.

    Fiction is not a lie. Non-fiction can be a lie, since it claims to be telling the truth, but the truth can be told in a deceptive fashion. Or it can be wrong.

  27. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    But as William Morris said, it’s not just the author who is “lying”, as fiction also demands the willing suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story.

    Granted, but that’s not what is at issue. I didn’t write to absolve readers. I’m willing to concede that if loving a nothing is wrong, and if characters in fiction are a nothing, then authors are only complicit in the wrong readers do.

    In my mind, there is value in the telling of stories to teach experiences vicariously, and at lesser cost to the reader or listener. Truths are learned, and a culture or traditions values passed from one individual to another, or generation to generation.

    I agree, but that’s not to the issue. I’m not arguing that reading fiction has bad effects.

  28. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Is this the same moral issue as establishing relationships in video game worlds? Or, perhaps even closer, in the not-so-distant future when robots are able to mimic people to the point that we build relationships with them? Will it be immoral to design your friends (or your family)?

    You and I are thinking along the same lines.

  29. Latter-day Guy on April 18, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    “…if characters in fiction are a nothing…”

    And that, I think, is the material point. Do we love them as people or as characters? They definitely exist as characters (or as you say above, archetypes). Doesn’t the fact that we can read about them prove some existence? And is it wrong to care for them in the sphere they inhabit?

    I rather think not, for reason’s above more aptly stated than I could.

  30. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Is our affection towards character, or the idea of the character? I contend the latter.

    I contend the former. I can’t really enjoy fictionif I’m distanced enough from it that you don’t experience the character as a character but instead as a writer’s conception.

    What moral implication is there to bear affection towards a person who doesn’t exist?

    Its perverse. That’s not a conclusion I’m drawing from other arguments, its an intuition I’m starting with. If you don’t share that intuition, we’re probably just talking past each other.

    I’m morally certain that you bear a great deal of affection for historical characters, such as (to hazard a guess) Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt.

    Yep.

    If future historians were to find that such persons never existed, would that call into question the morality of the affection you felt for them when you believed they did; or the affection you might continue to feel even after learning that they never lived?

    I wouldn’t be morally culpable because I genuinely believed they did exist. But I would probably be disturbed about my continued affection once I found out they didn’t exist and would try to find some way to salvage it, like I did at the end of this post.

  31. Daylan on April 18, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Perhaps we misunderstand what “Thou shalt not bear false witness” means. For me it means two things: 1) Do not misrepresent the product or service you are selling (no fraud) and 2) Do not lie about another persons actions either in casual conversation (reputation) or [especially] under oath (as witness in a legal proceeding). For me, creating works of fiction doesn’t rise to the level of bearing false witness.

  32. Bob on April 18, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Me: I like Rocky Balboa over Mile Tyson.
    Who can name the movie? ” Come on, raise your hands, who didn’t cry when Old Yeller died”?

  33. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Daylan, I am not arguing that fiction is lying. “Lying is immoral. Fiction doesn’t lie because the author is honest that he’s inventing.”

  34. Bob on April 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    That’s Mike Tyson ( and S…….s.)

  35. Bob on April 18, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    #6: Barry Lopez writes on this.

  36. Dave on April 18, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Bob (#32): that would be Stripes with Bill Murray. But perhaps references to movies with an Urban Assault Vehicle should show up in the YFZ ranch raid thread?

  37. Proud Daughter of Eve on April 18, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Stories are important. What matters more than the literal truth is the psychological truths transmitted. Fairy tales are full of dead parents because the world isn’t a safe place and everyone needs to know they can face such a situation and survive, even thrive.

    It’s like any good thing, I think. A little bit is good for you; too much isn’t. Just don’t substitute books for real friends and real relationships.

  38. Bob on April 18, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    #37: I agree: it’s more fun to find truth in your Fiction, than fiction in your Truth.

  39. mlu on April 18, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    Among the viewpoints to consider, I would suggest Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and Robert Cole’s The Moral Life of Children.

    I don’t have time right now, so here’s an excerpt mentioning those two from an article by Ruth Smith (“Stories: An Old Moral Education Method Rediscovered,” Education, Vol. 113, 1993:

    Stories, of course, have been used from earliest times and in all cultures as a method of instilling the society’s values into the young (McCarron, 1987). Around the fire in the evening, story tellers have entranced eager, bright-eyed children with folktales, myths and legends extolling the deeds of the heroes and making judgments on the acts of the wicked. Before the advent of television, families used to read together during long winter evenings, perhaps not consciously moralizing, but devouring the literature that had been accepted by the society as valuable. The children were fascinated by the stories and little realized that they were absorbing society’s concepts of right and wrong.

    Stories have powerful emotional appeal. As children listen to a well-told story, they are inspired to model the virtuous behavior of the hero because they partake of the good feelings of doing good. Moreover, they grieve over the effects of the mistakes the hero and others in the story make. Thus they emotionally experience the ill effects of the bad behavior without doing it themselves.

    One of the major reasons stories are so effective, is that they work unconsciously (Casement, 1986). Bettelheim (1976) and Coles (1986, 1989), two child psychiatrists, have written on the powerful effect of stories to help a child find meaning in life. Bettelheim especially extols the benefits of the fairy tale, which, because the child accepts its imaginary origins, allows the child to experience the darker side of himself. For example, the wicked stepmother may represent the hate side of the relationship of the child and his mother, whom he could not openly hate. The hero or heroine prevails against all odds, finds a source of outside help, and succeeds at last to become the king or queen, which represents adulthood. Thus the child receives hope that he too will prevail over his problems.

    Coles (1989) and Casement (1986) both noted that each child selects that part of the story that helps her to organize her life, but each may do it differently from any other child. Also, the same story may help with different problems at different times in life. Thus the effect is something the child experiences, but the results cannot be dictated.

    As the child is carried into the world of the story, he enters the life of the hero. Because the story depicts not only the hero’s behavior, but also his thoughts and feelings (Eisley & Merril, 1984), the listener is able to “get inside” the hero as is seldom experienced in real life or video productions. The story then becomes a laboratory of life (Vitz, 1990). It provides vicarious experiences for the child which would not actually be possible in real life.

  40. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Adam, I guess I don’t agree with a couple of these statements. First, you state that having an emotional attachment to a fictional character is perverse, but yet you don’t like reading fiction that doesn’t engage you with the character as an individual rather than as an author’s creation. Those ideas, if I have stated them correctly, seem to be at odds with each other. If I have misunderstood your thinking, let me know.

    I reread your statement in the original post about fictional characters having some sort of actual counterpart in this or other numberless worlds. To me, that’s not a big stretch. Joseph Campbell’s writings point out that we have very few original fictional character creations. They tend to be archetypes of one kind or another. So to speak, we see in Luke Skywalker the shadows of many previous real or mythic heroes and stories. They resonate with us because of the verisimilitude with real people we have known. We read, and see ourselves in the stories. The whole point of classical tragedy was the catharsis, to see the hero with the fatal flaw that dooms him/her, and we are enlightened by the vicarious struggle, and become stronger.

    Lehi taught us about “opposition in all things” as being a necessary part of our lives. We can benefit from learning from other’s experience without having to make those mistakes ourselves. To that end, I don’t discount the parables or the suspected literary books of the Bible, as those stories are told to teach us, but through these stories, we learn to be better. The parable of the unjust steward teaches us to be “just stewards” through examining his bad behavior.

    Now if you go looking for the Steeds home in Nauvoo, maybe you got just a little too involved with some fictional characters…..

  41. mlu on April 18, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    My main thought is just this: certainly fiction can be immoral and maybe much of twentieth century literature tends that way, but my gut tells me it isn’t inherently so.

    Most nonfiction biography and autobiography contains fictive passages not because of dishonesty but because there is no purely nonfiction way to tell such stories. I rather suspect this is true of the Gospels as well.

    Certainly one can create fictional words, either in print or in digital gaming machines, that cause moral harm to visitors. As always, what we say is morally loaded. We need to be careful.

  42. maria on April 18, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Mr. Greenwood, I understand your preference for historical characters. They are real and can be factually traced. However, the truth of their \”true\” stories lies entirely in the telling and the believing. For example, you and I could witness the same event and tell two very different, \”true\”, stories of what occured. Is either of our story immoral? No. They are both ture, to some extent. My life is fiction, based on a true story. Only God knows my true story, and I will as well, someday, in perfect hindsight and resurrrected realization. For now, all I can tell is a sort of fictionalized account, that I hope has some validity. Fiction, non-fiction… it\’s all perspective. It all has potential for truth and deception.

  43. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Picasso: “Art is a lie which tells us the truth”.

  44. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    By the way, in light of this thread, I highly recommend the movie “Stranger than Fiction”, with Will Farrell, Emma Thompson, and Dustin Hoffman. The scene where Hoffman’s literature professor is trying to help Farrell’s character figure out whose fictional story he is living, as he rules out Golems, classical mythology, and Shakespeare, is classic. Relates to what we are talking about here very specifically, in a classical tragic sort of way.

    I got attached to those characters.

  45. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Kevinf, I very much liked your #40.

    Maria,
    While you are correct that in this life we only see through a glass darkly, there is definitely a difference between embracing something you know to be false and something that is false but you don’t know it; there is also a difference between forming a relationship or an interest in someone who one day you can hope to fully and truly know “in perfect hindsight and resurrected realization” and someone who you can’t because they don’t exist. I read fiction avidly but I love history too, even though it can’t be packaged as well as fiction can, for some of the reasons you point out.

    MLU,
    thanks for the recs.

  46. Peter LLC on April 18, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    The only false thing is our affection for the character, because the character as such does not exist

    If the issue isn’t fiction per se, but one’s response to it, what about the affection one has for a real person, but whose character one incorrectly divines? (please pardon the equivocation)

  47. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Very interesting question, sir. I know people who’ve been in that situation often feel very angry, like their affection was a lie or a cheat. And perhaps they are right. But at least the fact of the relationship itself was not a lie or a cheat. There really was a subject for their affections.

  48. Mark B. on April 18, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Perhaps it’s time to return to Platonic idealism: if we start with his premise, then we are not feeling affection for a nothing, for the characters that we love (or hate) are as real as the ideals of truth or beauty or lust or anger or whatever.

  49. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Mark B, or perhaps not. Maybe it’s just me, but I much prefer the real thing to Platonic love.

  50. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Perhaps it’s time to return to Platonic idealism:

    Don’t tempt me.

  51. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 18, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    The first thing I thought of was the parables. The second thing is the Book of Mormon.

    When an investigator of the Church is reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, he or she is BY DEFINITION unsure of whether the book is truth or fiction. If he is skeptical, he may assume it is fiction at the start, but may not be sure himself what he thinks, but if he has other reasons to be attracted to the Church, he may hope that it is true.

    By the time the reader gets to Moroni’s challenge (I prefer to think of it that way rather than his promise, since the focus is really on what the reader is willing to do and believe), he has spent a good deal of time with the book and its characters, including Nephi, Alma 1 and 2, Ammon, Helaman, Moroni 1, Jesus, Mormon and Moroni 2, the Brother of Jared. Then Moroni asks the reader to think about God’s mercy toward these characters, to think about them as real people who have needed, and obtained, that grace. Then we are encouraged to ask God for the same measure of grace we have witnessed throughout the book, to let us know whether these people are real, whether God’s grace is real, whether God is real.

    Mormon, Moroni and Nephi very deliberately have tried to lead us to identify with all of their characters. The characters and their actions make the story more concrete, more emotionally engaging, and caused us to want them to be real and their experiences real.

    Alma Chapter 32 speaks of planting the word in our hearts if we have no more than a desire to believe, and then nourishing the seed with diligent attention, and receiving confirmation of its truth as it sprouts in our souls. Very explicitly, the “word” we are asked to plant is the words of Alma and all the words of the Book in which the parable is planted. We are told to plant the story we are reading so that we can feel it swell and begin to grow in our hearts, so we know it is good.

    So if we are reading the Book of Mormon in an engaged manner, we come to think of the people depicted as real people. We WANT them to be real, because we have seen they are good, and we desire for our lives the same goodness and reassurance of a living God that was held by Alma 2.

    So how can it be sinful to become attached to “fictional” characters and yearn for them to be real (the source of the whole Star Wars and Star Trek fan phenomena)? God created the Book of Mormon to serve precisely that purpose, to anchor us in its narrative, to make us desire it be true, and then confirm our desire. When it works as it is supposed to, it is analogous to reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and finding ourselves actually living in Narnia, a new world where powerful and good beings exist who love us and sacrifice themselves for us and crown us kings and queens.

  52. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    I am persuaded that the characters in the Book of Mormon were not only depicted as real people but were real people, and that this is an important difference is my starting point.

  53. Bob on April 18, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    #52: Sorry, hijack: I was looking up “What is Truth”, and ran into this: Quid est veritas? Est vir, qui adest. (an antigram for “What is Truth” to “The Truth stand before of you.”) What say my learned Bloggers? ( not part of the Latin).

  54. kevinf on April 18, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Adam, Raymond appears to be approaching this from the angle of an investigator who does not start with that premise (BoM characters as real), and may through their reading determine that those characters are real. They then appreciate and have affection for them in a whole different way. I think it’s a good analogy.

    But then again, my biggest gripe about authors are the ones who don’t trust their story, and indulge in a lot of character asides, or didactic devices, which implies that they don’t trust their readers, either. Hence, the forced, Hollywood happy ending, the moralistic bludgeoning, and the stereotyped (as opposed to archetype) characters. Nothing worse than a scene or conversation that says to the reader, “just in case you didn’t get my point, let me tell you straight out”.

    That’s why I sometimes struggle with “Mormon Fiction”. Too often, the principle being taught gets in the way of the story and the characters. A good example of how it can be handled well are Orson Scott Card’s two Hugo/Nebula award winners, Ender’s Game, and Speaker for the Dead. Both are filled with unique and powerful Mormon themes, with almost no specific references to Mormonism per se.

    The

  55. Kari on April 18, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    “What fiction does do is to seduce the reader into forming attachments to people who don’t exist. Is this immoral? My gut says darn straight it is.”

    Darn straight. We all know that the gut is the source of all wisdom. Hence your being persuaded that the characters in the BoM were real people. Hence the belief by millions that Mohammed is God’s Prophet. Hence the belief by a billion or so people that the Pope is really God’s mouthpiece on earth. Hence the belief by millions that there is no God. Where would we be without our guts?

    I would like to hear some further reasoning as to your assertion that fiction is immoral. You haven’t really given any reasons for me to believe that forming an attachment to a fictional character is wrong.

    If it really is wrong to form such an attachment, then we must conclude that it is wrong to be attached to the characters of a parable (as others previously have discussed) or to want to pattern our lives after the notion of sacrifice given to us by Frodo, or to learn to love others from the story of Jonah, or to gain any wisdom from the conversations of Arjuna with Vishna; or even to be moved by the story of Tom Sawyer, the Chance Brothers, Beowulf, Hercules, Captain Ahab, or Bridget Jones.

  56. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) on April 18, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Jeremy Gayed:
    What moral implication is there to bear affection towards a person who doesn’t exist?

    Adam Greenwood:
    Its perverse.

    What if fictional character actually do exist and are actually real — our first (unwitting?) attempts at spiritual creation? I don’t think Mr. Greenwood would argue that feeling affection for a being of spirit (such as an unborn child or a deceased loved one is immoral. If we consider fictional characters to be an early step in the process of spiritual creation, the intuition Mr. Greenwood argues for may no longer hold.

    I’m not suggesting that fictional characters are the equivalent of a deceased relative or an unborn child. However, as we move into future scenarios proposed above, our fictional characters may get closer and closer to these unembodied entities we now rightly feel affection for. Perhaps what we experience now toward fictional characters is just a precursor of things to come?

  57. Adam Greenwood on April 18, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    That’s splendid,sir. I really like that.

  58. we on April 18, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    “Truth is a matter of the imagination.” Ursula K. Le Guin

  59. Jacob J on April 19, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Adam,

    You’re just gunning for next year’s niblet in the “worst post ever” category. Admit it.

  60. Adam Greenwood on April 19, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Hah. Well, it could only be a “worst post” if the post were fictional . . .

  61. Tatiana on April 20, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Have you read Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins”? I think truth and fiction, life and death, dreams and reality, are far more tangled and inseparable than we sometimes think.

    Yes, I’m in love with many fictional people. I don’t consider it to be perverse in the least. On the contrary, it’s essential. They’ve touched me and influenced me sometimes far more than people in the world around me, because I know their inner lives, their struggles, and their experiences. I know what it’s like to be them, in a way that I can’t really know for the people around me. They teach me, and open my eyes and heart to what life is, to what it means.

    I do think good fictional characters are real in some sense. (Bad ones definitely aren’t, I agree.) They’re aspects of myself, perhaps, or of those around me. Because I know and love Rodia Raskolnikov, for instance, I can love the other proud and fallen, pure and corrupt, angelic and hateful, torn and confused human souls around me to a depth that I never could otherwise. Art is life. Beauty truth. Perception is a form of poetry.

  62. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) on April 20, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Why would good characters be real and bad ones not? What about my favorite kind, the ones who are both good and bad, like most people I know?

    It really doesn’t seem any more perverse to say “I love Jean Valjean” than to say “I love Joseph Smith” or “I pity Bill Sykes”.

  63. Jacob J on April 20, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Adam, then it would be eligible for the “most immoral post” category as well, but it will have stiff competition in that category from Jana.

  64. Lyle on April 21, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Adam: Plz check your email and call me. Much appreciated. Sorry for open post.

  65. Ardis Parshall on April 21, 2008 at 10:45 am

    I’m in love with a man who died in 1904. I read his diary in LDS Archives and fell head over heels, and I still love him years after I first read his diary. He is and was a real person, and his words were as true as most mortals manage, but he is as out of reach to me as any fictional character would be. Where does this fit into your scheme of fiction/truth morality/immorality?

  66. Adam Greenwood on April 21, 2008 at 11:38 am

    I know what you mean, Ardis P. One difference is that ultimately he isn’t out of reach.
    Given eternity, even I will be able to spend several long evenings talking with A. Lincoln.

  67. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) on April 21, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Given eternity and the possibility of spiritual creation, fictional characters might also not ultimately be out of reach.

  68. Rachel on April 21, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Some days, I start to almost agree with Adam. When I connect with fictional people in a book, it can be really easy to want to ignore the real people around me who have claim on me. And when the characters in the books don’t have all of the complicating issues that real people invariably have, it can seem easier to use books to feel emotionally connected. Real relationships take work. Book relationships just take reading. Any time I start to wish that my husband or my children or my parents were more like a fictional character, I feel like the book relationships are no longer healthy.

    Yet, fiction has introduced me to characters that have increased my compassion by helping me “live” through experiences I will never have. I think fiction has a place, but sometimes I have to be careful with it because of the power of the emotional bonds that can be formed.

  69. Adam Greenwood on April 22, 2008 at 1:31 pm

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.