black and white tulip

Why is moral ambiguity important in YA fiction?

As I discussed in my last post (‘A novel is not a fable’), novels don’t have to have an explicit moral message or an ending that contains an implicit one. Instead, they can ask moral questions or pose moral dilemmas, both for characters and for readers.

But how about in YA fiction? Do writers and publishers have an ethical responsibility to make sure that stories marketed to under 18s can’t be read as containing negative moral messages? For instance, is it OK for a YA book to tell a story in which wickedness is apparently rewarded, or does this risk leading teens ‘morally astray’? Irrespective of whether an ending is happy or sad, is it a requirement that the ‘good’ triumph or at least don’t lose out? Often arguments in favour of narrowing what’s permissible in YA fiction focus on the need to ‘protect’ young people. But does ‘protecting’ YA readers mean that we have to dictate to them on moral issues?

I believe books offer important opportunities to experiment with moral issues: safe within the confines of a fictional world we can watch moral dilemmas play out without having to face any real-life consequences. Books allow teenagers to try out different versions of themselves, gaining a vicarious emotional experience of how it feels to make different types of choices. Books that leave the interpretation of the moral questions at stake up to the reader allow teenagers the chance to decide what is right and wrong for themselves.

All people – children and adults – spend a lot of time trying to make sense of issues of right and wrong. We receive moral messages all the time, and many of them are in direct conflict. Even tiny children make judgements about right and wrong. These may be based on a minimal understanding of the world, let alone the facts, but we all have to work with what’s available to us.

In pedagogic terms I’m a big believer in Piaget’s idea that when you tell children something you prevent them from discovering their own truth. Similarly, if you tell people didactically what’s wrong and right, you prevent them from figuring it out for themselves. Of course we need input from our friends, family, colleagues and wider society to figure things out – to decide which views we agree with and which we don’t – but there’s a big difference between saying ‘I think this’ and ‘You must think this’. And isn’t that what’s happening when people insist that YA and children’s fiction must show a vision of the world that is ‘right’, at least as far as the ending goes?

This seems very dangerous to me because it assumes that there are moral absolutes even about complex issues and surely any thinking person recognises that sometimes the best we can do is pursue the ‘least bad’ option. That’s precisely where fiction comes in. Where better to play with your morals than in your imagination, through other lives, where there’s no danger to you or to the world around you? Where better to examine the consequences of making the ‘wrong’ choices? Isn’t it better to face what we don’t want in fiction so we’re not tempted to put it into practice? Because that, to me, seems the true danger of well-meaning attempts to ‘protect’ young adults from getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to moral issues.

Young adults experiment. They experiment with their hair, and their clothes, and their music, and their behaviour with different people, and their sense of self, and their career options, and the things they might want to do/be later in life… And part of that is experimenting with right and wrong. What young person has never said ‘Well, is it really that bad? I’m pretty good: maybe I should see what the other side of the coin is like?’ and then gone done something silly and irresponsible – and maybe fun but maybe dangerous.

I’m not saying YA should, in effect, be a series of warnings to teens: a sort of ‘don’t do this or look what might happen!’ approach. That’s just as dangerous as only giving YA readers ‘good’ examples to follow. Young adults – indeed, people – need both. They need to see people making the ‘wrong’ choices and people living up to their better selves: people taking the obvious path, right or wrong, and people forging a path of their own. People need variety in fiction to make life more interesting. And part of that variety should revolve around moral issues.

I’m not suggesting that books should try to send immoral messages: all I’m saying is that books shouldn’t always been seen as having to have a moral message at all. It’s OK for the ‘wrong’ thing to happen, even at the end of a book. In fact, sometimes this is an incredibly powerful way to demonstrate to readers that something is wrong without telling them so.

I love books that make me do a lot of the work: books that make me talk to them, defending my favourite characters, yelling at those who’re making bad decisions, ranting at the kettle in reading-breaks about all the things in the book that ring true as regards real life… If instead of telling the reader what to feel, you create the circumstances where the reader will simply react emotionally, then the emotion will come from inside the reader and will be the truer and stronger for it. Similarly, if you encourage a reader to feel injustice, rather than telling them something isn’t right, then they’ll also summon their own outrage: they’ll believe from the heart that the thing in question is unjust because they’ve reached that conclusion themselves. When a writer puts moral questions and dilemmas before readers and then refuses to dictate the answers, readers can discover their own truth as regards the rights and wrongs of the issues at stake. The process of doing this makes for a far deeper engagement with those issues and a much greater chance that the reader will keep thinking not just about the book but about what the book says about the world around us.

I often think it’s easier to learn from bad writing than from good. With bad writing, it’s a pretty simple matter to pick out what’s wrong, what mistakes you don’t want to make in your own work, how you think things could be done better. With great writing it’s hard to separate all the things that make it great: it’s hard to see how you can use a fantastic book to improve your own writing without just mimicking it. The same is true, in a way, for moral issues. When the ‘right’ thing happens at the end of a book, it’s very satisfying, but easily forgotten. When the ‘wrong’ thing happens, it can be a real blow for a reader. How many times have I agonised over what should have happened in a book? But that’s the point. Those stories stick with us because they push us to decide for ourselves not just how a book should have ended but why. And those are the lessons – ones we teach ourselves – that follow us into our real life choices about good and bad, right and wrong.

This is why teenagers, in particular, need books that don’t necessarily have a moral message: ones that are morally ambiguous, others that ask questions rather than answering them, and still others where the ‘wrong’ thing happens, leaving readers to right those wrongs in their own imaginations and, in so doing, clarify their own moral principles. If we dictate what is right and wrong to YA readers, we take away their opportunities for exploring and experimenting with these issues for themselves. Fiction is a safe place to do that. Of course, if you leave people to make up their own minds, they might see a morally ambiguous ending as containing a dubious moral message… but that doesn’t mean these readers will decide that message is right, let alone act on it. Do we really think young adults can’t – and, indeed, don’t – make their own decisions anyway?

I think we should worry less about ‘protecting’ young readers from potentially making moral ‘mistakes’ as regards how they interpret different stories and more about how these concerns might be preventing writers and publishers from publishing books that afford readers important opportunities to explore their understanding of right and wrong.


The world as it is or as it should be?

stairs leading into the sunset

Since finishing The Bone Dragon, I’ve been mulling over a big issue about fiction writing that boils down to one problem sentence: a single line of dialogue. Here it is in context. Have a read.

‘What on earth is going on here?’ someone asks.

I squat down and palm the cigarette, transferring it smoothly to my pocket as I stand.

‘Just a difference of opinion about a movie,’ I tell Mrs Poole. ‘Fred and Sonny Rawlins fancy the werewolf-boy in it, but Phee thinks the vampire-boy is cuter.’

‘That is not an issue that requires violence or swearing,’ Mrs Poole says, glaring between Phee and the boys.

‘Well, you know how it is. Boys our age, with their hormones running wild,’ Lynne adds airily. ‘I don’t suppose they can help it, poor dears.’

Mrs Poole, who has said as much before, gives Lynne a hard look, trying to work out if we’re mocking her or Fred and Sonny Rawlins. Lynne, Phee and I assume bland expressions. Mrs Poole sighs. ‘Off you go, girls. I think Mr Rawlins, Mr James and I need to have a few words.’

We hurry towards the girls’ loos, making sure to get out of earshot before we break into giggles.

‘They’re so going to get you for that, Evie!’ Lynne gasps.

‘Me? Why me?’

‘I just backed you up. You’re the one they’re going to want to get even with.’


Phee grins and tucks her arm through mine. ‘But it was so worth it.’

‘Depends how they get even.’ Lynne links arms with me on the other side.

‘Still worth it.’

This little scene-segment, and one line in particular, has been bugging me for months. I still can’t decide what to do about it. Have you spotted why?

No? Have another look.

Still not sure what the problem is?

It’s the ‘accusation’ that the boys are gay. It’s the idea that this is, naturally and without question, is an insult. Now, obviously, this is just the view of one of the characters… but it’s accepted without question by the others in the scene. It goes unchallenged. The assumption – and all the bigotry and prejudice behind it – are treated as normal and natural.

Beyond a personal worry that my readers will think that I share this view (which I most certainly do not), I see a much bigger ethical issue at stake. Am I feeding into all the material out there that goes along with these assumptions, reproducing them and, thus, legitimising prejudices I want to see eradicated?

There’s a particular danger in nasty, insidious assumptions like this that go unchallenged and I don’t want to be contributing to it.

So why doesn’t one of the characters offer a challenge? I would. But they wouldn’t. That’s not who they are as characters. If asked directly about homosexuality (or any other type of sexual orientation for that matter), all three girls would probably say they didn’t have any issues with people being happy so long as they’re not hurting anyone. They wouldn’t see the bigotry in their own actions and words because although we live in a society where more and more people are starting to profess liberal views (which is a wonderful start) fewer are rooting out any hypocrisy in the detail of what they say and do – and, sometimes more importantly, in what they don’t say and don’t do when confronted with less overt forms of prejudice.

For me, the characterisation rings true: these young teenagers (they’re about 13) haven’t really given the issue any thought. It’s not surprising (though certainly not laudable) since most adults haven’t either. They don’t see that they’re being bigoted. They’re just, unthinkingly, part of a culture with prejudice embedded in so different ways that it very often goes unnoticed.

But is that the world I should be portraying? Or, to put the question slightly differently, is that the type of world I should choose to portray?

Because it is a choice. This is my book. Everything in it is there because of my choosing, so do I have an ethical responsibility to show the world as it should be as opposed to how it is? Or is it OK for me to simply ‘represent’ what I see, as if that is somehow value-neutral, without moral implications?

Now, I would like to think my readers will look at this scene and see it as reflecting huge flaws in my characters’ personalities (and their ability to think), but will they if I don’t flag up the fact that there’s a moral problem?

As I said above, it doesn’t make sense in terms of the Phee and Lynne’s personalities that they’d challenge the narrator’s comment. Phee and Lynne are pretty naïve. They’re certainly not great thinkers. They might tackle overt prejudice head on… but they wouldn’t see prejudice here to challenge.

The teacher might… but what she hears could be value-neutral. It’s only when the girls are out of sight that the reader is clued into how the characters are interpreting what Evie (the narrator) has said: as an insult. It’s their reactions that turn something entirely innocuous into an ‘accusation’.

As for Evie, this is a subtle but significant revelation about her character. Evie is naïve in only a very few ways. She does think deeply about things. So why doesn’t she think about this? It’s part of a bigger picture: in many ways, she’s exceptionally mature for her age, but in a couple, she’s rather backwards. It’s significant that this is one of them.

So the scene points up an important inconsistency in Evie’s character… and some of the big flaws in Phee and Lynne (who are otherwise pretty likeable). Only is it too subtle?

I’d like to think all my readers will immediately think ‘What a horrid thing to say! Wow, I really didn’t think they’d be so prejudiced.’ But will they all?

So what’s the solution?

My characters are a product of a world they live in: a world that I am trying to represent ‘warts and all’ in the book (and this is certainly not the only type of wart shown). The scene says a lot about the characters’ flaws, particularly the main character’s flaws. So it’s not a ‘throw away’ piece of dialogue: it speaks to a lot of other things that are going on. But it does so in a very subtle way, and I don’t like the dangers inherent in that subtlety. In writing about the world ‘warts and all’ I don’t want to part of sustaining any of the warts.

So what did I decide about the scene?

Well, one of the things I decided is that the draft has given me a great opportunity to talk about something I think is very important: the need for fiction writers to think about whether there are ethical issues inherent in what we do. It’s not enough to say ‘This is art’ and leave it at that.

And so I’m challenging what my characters aren’t. I’m questioning the assumptions I hate behind this seemingly innocuous scene. I’m saying that if anyone doesn’t see a huge problem in the scene from the get-go, then that says something truly shocking about the society we live in. If I were writing about and representing the sort of world I’d like to live in, this scene wouldn’t make any sense.

I could just take it out. I could just put something else in that doesn’t come with all this ‘baggage’. But does that really help to represent the world I want to live in? By keeping entirely mum, I’m not in any danger of hurting… but neither have I much chance of helping.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for keeping the scene. And then talking about. And talking about it some more. The scene is allowing me to ask a great big question: ‘What do we need to do to create a society where this scene doesn’t make sense because not only are we not overtly bigoted but we’ve moved beyond all those dangerous, insidious prejudices still boiling below the politically correct surface’.

It’s not enough for us to be politically correct and challenge prejudice when it’s as clear as day. That’s hugely important, don’t get me wrong… but it’s the other sort of prejudice we need to be really worried about: the prejudice that’s so deeply woven into our culture that we don’t even see it. Because if we don’t see it, it’s bound to go unquestioned and unchallenged.

I don’t have the answers to all these questions, but I have a couple of thoughts about what an ethical code of fiction writing might look like in relation to these issues:

  • If you do choose to represent the world ‘as is’ in your work, make sure you challenge any non-overt prejudices or morally dubious behaviours outside the book. We all have a responsibility for not letting things pass unquestioned, so if you’re characters won’t or can’t offer a challenge, make sure that you do.
  • Make sure that prejudice is never treated as a ‘throw away’ issue. If your characters are going to be prejudiced, especially ‘covertly’ prejudiced, make sure it’s for a good reason: make sure it speaks to other issues in the book, even if it’s in a low-key sort of way.

Not convinced?

How about if the issue at stake weren’t prejudice but the use of torture. I’m regularly upset by how common it is for the ‘heroes’ of popular American TV series to trample over other characters’ most fundamental rights. Torture is shockingly common. Even more horrifying, it’s rarely questioned by the characters or the people behind these series. Instead, it’s often a ‘throw away’ issue. And it should never be that.

So what’s the bottom-line?

Whatever you write, think it through. Don’t assume there are no ethics at stake: don’t assume that the label ‘fiction’ absolves you of any and all responsibility.

… Which is not to suggest that we should impose a form of politically correct censorship under the banner of ethics. I’m just suggesting that we, as writers, need to think about what we’re doing and, ideally, talk about it. After all, we love writing and we love books, so it’s not exactly a hardship, is it? And perhaps it might just help us to bridge the gap between the world as it is and as it should be.

So, opening up the floor, does anyone have any advance on my thoughts about what an ethical code for fiction writers might look like?