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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

The Moral Conundrum

If you can talk, you can write. It sounds like an oversimplification. Maybe it is. It’s also good advice for those who have a mind to write a story of their own but don’t have the confidence to push through that initial fear barrier. There can never be too many stories, and those who feel they have one inside of them should be encouraged to sprout that seed into a sapling. Creativity is inherent; technique can be learned. Tapping the former is, after all, the central theme of The Waking World trilogy.

There is a beautiful simplicity to the idea of writing the way you talk, but it will only get you started. It is not easy to write a novel – planning it out, executing it and resolving the plot with all loose threads neatly tied (then the editing begins). Writing is difficult in countless frustrating, surprising and utterly exhausting ways. And there is a hierarchy of difficulty. Striding the highest peak is writing comedy.

I wouldn’t even attempt it. I simply don’t have that talent, which makes me somewhat in awe of those who do. How do you create laugh-out-loud moments repeatedly and consistently? It sounds a whole new scale of exhausting.

Think of The Simpsons, and how many gags are shoehorned into a single episode – a relentless artillery of one-liners, witty pop-culture references and biting satire. Family Guy took the template and cranked it up a notch, creating new layers of bawdy, crass, and outright shocking adult humour. That’s not to say Groening and MacFarlane invented funny, but I can’t recall ever seeing so much crammed into half an hour of television. One can only imagine the burnout in the writing room.

The Good Place

I don’t often recommend comedies, but will happily plug the 2016 Netflix series The Good Place. It’s in another comedic universe to the likes of The Simpsons, Family Guy, and the more mainstream fare like Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family. And when I say another universe, take it literally. The Good Place is the first TV sitcom set entirely in the afterlife.

Quick synopsis: In the opening scene, main character Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a meticulously tidy interview room opposite Michael (Ted Danson), who goes on to explain the situation. The bad news is she’s dead; the good news is that she’s been sent to “The Good Place”.

Michael takes Eleanor for a quick tour of The Good Place, finishing up with her accommodation – a small, soulless, modernista nightmare decorated with clown paintings – and the obligatory introduction to her resident soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper). The Good Place is wall-to-wall populated with righteous folk enjoying the heavenly rewards for having lived a good and moral life.

Small problem – Eleanor is not that person. A series of earthly flashbacks reveal the real Eleanor Shellstrop: lazy, greedy, immoral and relentlessly self-absorbed. Obviously, an admissions mistake has been made and our girl’s not the type to ‘fess up. After some soul searching, Eleanor reveals her secret to Chidi, who happens to be a student of philosophy. Long story short: an anxious Chidi agrees to teach her about ethics in the hope she can become a better person and take her rightful place among her morally superior neighbours.

Naturally, Eleanor and Chidi are about the furthest things from soul mates one can imagine, and tensions begin to simmer. Their half-baked plan quickly spirals out of control, with realm-shaking consequences. I won’t drop any more spoilers, but the series is filled with plot twists. It’s a unique and fiendishly clever spin on a fish-out-of-water comedy. And overlaying the absurdities, references, one-liners and hilariously over-the-top apocalypse sequences (think flying shrimp, stampeding giraffes) lies a simple message.

Be good

It might not get you into The Good Place. It might not even get you into The Medium Place. Complicating matters is the grim reality that ethics can be confusing, and rarely a cut and dry choice between good and evil. Take Chidi’s disastrous attempt at solving The Trolley Problem – a textbook moral dilemma based around the principle of choosing which group of innocents to run down on a railway track.

Like the problem itself, the scene was formulated to get the viewer thinking, albeit relieved of the over-the-top gruesome consequences the hapless Chidi had to endure (over and over again). Watching television is a passive medium; ditto for books. But that restriction does not apply to a relatively new medium

Horses for courses

How many times have you heard people say this:

“Kids are wasting time playing video games.”

My eyes doth roll every time I hear it. Sure, there is some truth to it, but just as much untruth. I’m a stickler for definitions. Without them, the above-mentioned statement, and countless others like them, are nothing more than generalisations. They can be picked apart easily, their inherent weaknesses and half-truths exposed. Let’s swap the subject of the statement and see what happens:

“Kids are wasting time reading books.”

Unlikely you’ll get as many approving nods dropping that one into a conversation. But why not? I could easily pick a selection of books equally as mind-numbing as Candy Crush, Angry Birds or even multiplayer shootathons like Overwatch and Fortnite. In every medium you will find variety – a hierarchy of quality from the dumbed-down basic to intellectually challenging. There is more to gaming than twitch action sequences and finding new and bloodthirsty ways to end your enemies.

Some will even challenge your inherent morality.

The White Wolf

Based on the fiction of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher games are set in a fictional medieval world riven by war, tribalism, competing religions and roaming monsters.

It’s not just about killing the latter. In each edition, a greater narrative steers professional monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia through greater Temeria, a world of breathtaking scope and depth (though not fully realised till the release of Game III). Even from Game I, the RPG elements were well-crafted, but familiar enough to anyone who cut their teeth on Final Fantasy and Dragon Age. The combat system improved immeasurably as of Game II, but the one of the core appeals remained consistent. Your decisions can change the story.

Knives and Forks

At a Crossroads is a pivotal quest in The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings, in which Geralt has to decide whether to side with the (human) Vernon Roche or the (Scoia’Tael) Lorveth. It’s a moral decision that echoes the racial schism between the elf-like Scoia’Tael of the forests and the empire building humans telegraphed early in the first game. But this one’s different. At a Crossroads splits the game into two distinct story paths, and the choice the player makes determines which Geralt will follow.

For the first time, I felt that a video game was treating me like an adult. It was not an easy decision to make. In fact, I took time out to make it. There are obvious advantages in siding with the more powerful human faction, but my gut was to go with the underdog/elf. It led me to ask if playing a character as powerful and badass as Geralt meant making different moral decisions than I would in real life.

I hope I never have to answer that one. In an early chapter of Game III: Wild Hunt, I had to make a quick decision regarding a gang of ruffians terrorising a small rural village of White Orchid. I cornered them in an out-of-the-way roadside inn, expecting a fistfight. The game had other ideas, delivering a cut scene reminiscent of Game of Thrones' The Red Wedding. The bloodbath was genuinely shocking, and a sobering reminder that I was only part-way steering Geralt’s actions.

Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword never crossed Geralt of Rivia.

I have long made a habit of steering clear of games that involve killing people. Even bad people. And while I’ll happily blast monsters, aliens and zombies till my thumb numbs, people are mostly off limits. Even in a virtual world, killing people sickens me. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels that way, but relatively few in my experience are similarly affected.

Bad blood

This could easily detour into a discussion linking video-game violence with real-life. I’m not pushing that bandwagon. The subject is moral interaction in storytelling. It didn’t begin with Geralt’s adventures, nor will it end. Increasingly, Developers are using new and powerful tools to implement world-altering decision making into the gameplay. My experience of this kind of enhanced storytelling experience is limited to game series like The Witcher, Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls, in which the player is free to make alliances with factions of choice, and even romance certain Non-Player Characters (NPCs). It’s a brave new world of storytelling that takes the participant out of his/her passive role and thrusts them into the heart of the story.

Aside from the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks I used to consume as a child, a book cannot deliver on this experience. The nearest a humble fiction writer can get to it is create characters so engaging that the reader bonds with them. On that level, the moral conundrum they face become the reader’s. Best-case scenario: the reader will be engaged enough to ask, “What would I do?”

Challenge accepted

In The Waking World trilogy, there is plenty of moral gristle for the reader to chew on. Morganveil must weigh the responsibility of his bloodline against his self-doubt and persistent vices. Burdened with a millennium-old curse, Grandpa Rand must live with the fact that his family’s dysfunction is a direct consequence of his decision to weaponise his grandsons in service to an ancient pledge. Lisalle is relentlessly tortured about his failure to deliver the Golden Dukes as a child. His story arc is one of redemption, however belated, but his desperation to atone makes him reckless, and leads him into the arms of dubious allies.

These are all part of the bigger picture, and mostly going on outside the knowledge of our intrepid schoolboy adventurers. Separately, both Hopskotch and Dobbin must face their own moral fork in the road. In Book II, Hopskotch is forced to make one such life-and-death decision to either protect himself or free an innocent creature:

“The decision is yours,” Tannen said. Careful to keep the bird’s head covered, he offered it to his brother.
Hopskotch took a step backward. “Wait, what?”
Slowly, it dawned upon him what his brother meant. Palms raised, he put another step between himself and his brother. “I can’t. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to…”
“Snap its neck,” the voice in his head interjected. “He wants you to snap its neck.”

This scene was a spontaneous addition, and not written into the original chapter brief. In hindsight, there was a certain cruelty to it; the decision Hopskotch had to make was well beyond his years. Perhaps Tannen tested his brother deliberately, in order to prepare him for greater challenges to come. From a writer’s point of view, I had Hopskotch decide the way I would have – at that age, in that situation. The consequences came quickly back to bite, as the Syltling was no doubt resigned to.

Characters need consistency as much as depth. The scene was added to draw the reader into Hopskotch’s moral universe, to forge a greater sense of empathy with the character. Not for me to say whether it worked, but I believe it added much to Hopskotch’s personal journey. The hero will always face adversity, but in order to forge an emotional bond with the reader, the author must raise before them a greater hurdle: the challenging, perplexing, oft-heartbreaking moral conundrum.

How else does one open a path to the good place.

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