Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Writers' Moral Responsibility: What Is It?

Another title for this post could be "Books Don't Make People Do Things, Choices Make People Do Things".

A comment from Monday's post inspired me today and I'm glad for it. The last was a light post, but I like meaty posts too, so this should be a fun one.

Moral responsiblity for your writing: How much do you have?

Let's say you write a murder mystery and someone gets ideas from your book and goes out killing people, should that give you pause in publishing such a book? What if they started blaming you, and the killer, once caught, named you as an accomplice, and later they found the victims buried under your floorboards?

That one's a bit extreme, and wildly fabricated (and also an episode of Psych, I believe). Here's a better one. Let's say you write a purely fictional book about a horrible government which so happens to resemble what you think the United States would look like in twelve years (providing your villain were in control, etc) and it becomes wildly popular. But some people get up in arms over it and start boycotting your novel, saying you're anti-government, anti-authority, etc. Would that stop you from writing and trying to publish the book in the first place? Should you consider that when writing the book?

If you said 'no', I'd have to agree with you, and if you said 'yes', I'd love to hear your reasons in the comments. I said 'no' because, for one thing, the 'evil government' concept is big in dystopian books. BIG big, and most people don't bat an eye, especially if they read a lot of dystopian and are familiar with the genre. They understand that, while the idea is inspired by real fears and concerns, it's still fiction. Besides, the real fear and concern is what made the book so compelling and entertaining to read in the first place and isn't that a writer's goal?

Even if the work was a non-fiction book exposing the corruption in the goverment that might lead to a rotten future twelve years from now, it's up to the reader to discern. It's also up to the reader to use the information they get from the book wisely. The non-fiction writer put it out there to inform them, because knowledge is power and knowledge can change circumstances.

People like to blame books for bad behavior and in regard to that, I'd like to say it is not Twilight's fault if your teenage daughter has a violent, jealous boyfriend. It is also not Water For Elephant's fault if your wife has an affair. It isn't even The Hobbit's fault if your staff writer decides to take a long walk and blow off work. There are extenuating circumstances in all of these situations and blaming a book for the outcome is as bad as blaming your credit card when you run the bill up.

Writers should consider two things when they write (and want to publish successfully): that they tell the story their heart/muse is telling them to write, and that they consider their audience. Beyond that, it's up to the reader (or the reader's parents) to be discerning.

I'd love for you to weigh in.


  1. Awesome post!

    I definitely wouldn't stop writing a plot out of fear of inspiring real life events because *I* am inspired by real life and it's a constant cycle. Plus I can't be responsible as an author for the actions of others. Is it up to me to be the moral police, no. Books are there to challenge and open minds. I also like the idea that books sort of teach us things without us really realising we're learning. So if that means offering up a tale of a murderer, go for it. As the dystopian trend shows, we're all pretty happy to explore darker possibilities, as does the crime genre.

  2. I wouldn't stop. Like Cole pointed out I'm not writing to be an idol or the epitome of morality. I'm seeing things in real life that I want to write about simply by asking 'what if?'. This reminds me of those articles where violent video games are blamed for people hurting and murdering others. Fiction if fiction. People have their own minds and they choose to murder. It's something that is already inside of them. If you ban video games, they'll find another source of fiction to get ideas from.

    Dystopian, horror, romance... it all comes from real life. The author isn't making these things up, they're already taking the darkness or happiness that's around them to begin with. So there's no need to blame the author. Try and have a look at what got them writing about it.

  3. You make a good point, but what about more specific things like "how to make a bomb" or "highly effective torture techniques" ? I'm not one for censorship or moral policing, but there are some things that should probably not be shared with the general public. (Although, I'm sure anyone who really wanted to know either of those things could probably learn about them on the internet.)

  4. I agree about the general public, and I'd hope a novel that includes detailed descriptions on how the killer blew up a building wouldn't become published unless it took the details out. As far as manuals for things like that go, they're out there, and I don't think they should be destroyed or prevented. I just wouldn't expect to see them on bookstore shelves and don't think they belong in the hands of unstable people.


I'd love to hear what you have to say!

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