Does a novel need to have a moral?

A friend of mine asked me: “What do you want to say with your book? Remember back in school days when we had to discover the moral of a story? Somebody wrote a tale to tell me that we easily detect lies. Why are you writing your story?”

I was puzzled. In the course of an entire day I was considering possible messages, and he overthrew all of them as meaningless, childish and unimportant.

Another friend of mine said: “It is not a child’s story – morals are the stuff of fables and schmaltzy Hollywood blockbusters. Seriously, if you put a moral in work these days, people think that they are being preached to. And I don’t think that that is your strength. You don’t have a great understanding of philosophy, psychology or politics. You craft fantastic landscapes, stocked with equally fantastic people and bring them to life with humor and affection."

So today I confessed that I have nothing important to say, not now. I can look up some wise thoughts, but I don’t believe I can generate one on my own. Besides, I want to say something important for the wrong reasons - that is pure vanity. I want to be motivated by love for the reader, not by how I would look in the eyes of people, when I don’t say anything. I fear that I have nothing to say and that fear gets in the way of love.

Your thoughts?

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I agree with your second friend in that, in this day and age, the majority of stories written today are for entertainment purposes, for escapism. Readers do not want the intrusion of the writer trying to force-feed them morality and propaganda. Today’s readers are savvy enough to form their own opinions, philosophies, and beliefs. They just want an interesting story filled with engaging characters. But, more importantly, you should be true to yourself in your writing. You should write the stories you would want to read.

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Thank you, Kelly!

I noticed yesterday that everyone has ideas about what my work should be like. Different, absolutely opposing ideas. Maybe it is not good advice to listen to people…one should be confident in their own writing because when you try to please everybody you are stuck…and the thoughts don’t flow…

You can’t please everyone, and trying hard to be pleasant to people is not the best way to succeed in becoming so.

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I think that there is a difference between a planned moral to a story, a forced moral to a story, and a natural moral to a story. You may not think that there is a moral to your story, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Some of you always comes through in everything you write. How could it not show up? You’re writing is from your personal experience and feelings no matter how you dress it up. Who you are informs what your characters do.

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Sometimes stories end up with a moral, which the writer may or may not have deliberately put in there.

“Need”? No. “Have”? Sometimes.

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Well, I keep finding themes and ideas in my paragraphs, but not my works as a whole:)

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My goto on this topic is K.M. Weiland. I used to worry about how to have that added depth of resonance in a story because I wanted it there and still do. Even a 30-min sitcom episode has a life lesson embedded within it each week (before binge-watching existed).

Does every form of entertainment need to have a message of some sort embedded within? No, but most of what doesn’t seems to be slapstick comedy or gratuitous violence in some form. It’s just not my thing. I used to consider it low-brow entertainment but then I met a very intelligent friend who enjoys a much wider array of humor than I do. No more judgement. I altered my point of view to it just being a matter of taste. I still don’t get any personal enjoyment from those forms that start and end with the experience and leave nothing to ponder later. Now, though, where I used to feel elevated by my taste, I now have this vague feeling that something is wrong with me because I’m not like my friend who can appreciate the wider range.

That doesn’t change the fact that I like what I like and want to create similar experiences for others who like that thing. In this case, that thing is something that resonates in the mind after the cover is closed on the book; something that made me highlight or make a note of something from the book to think about beyond the story. In one of her blog posts on theme, K. M. Weiland writes about how discovering the theme should be like finding buried treasure. I agree with that and think that is a huge part of why I enjoy that extra aspect of a story. When I discover theme in some writing, I know that I am most excited about how the characters and story have been put together to evoke it, not even necessarily the theme itself. I might not even agree with the message sometimes but marvel at how it is crafted in the story.

Stories can have a theme or moral and be too obvious. I’ve actually declined to finish Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series because of this. I enjoyed the first four novels of the series but the reviews for the fifth and final have a common theme in them that he has gone off the story and becomes very preachy and religious in the last novel.

I suspect that if you read through some of K. M. Weiland’s blog posts on the topic of theme, you’ll discover that your writing may already have themes buried within it. If your characters have any sort of change arc at all, it is hard not to have the seeds of theme there. Otherwise, why did they need to change?

I suggest starting with this post below and also following some of the links within the post to her other articles, if you’re interested. The best part is you don’t have to necessarily have the intention of theme and still have it appear with good plot and well-designed characters.

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I like these thoughts, @Argent - my work usually has a theme, and I don’t always know what it’s going to be when I start a project. I don’t enjoy “lesson” stories or “moral” stories, where the writer’s whole purpose seems to be preaching at the reader. Even my 6-year-old son can sniff these out. (He also finds them annoying.)

What I do like are stories that explore interesting questions. I’ve noticed I have certain themes that come up over and over again in my writing–questions about identity and belonging. I say questions because I don’t claim to have all the answers. In my writing projects, I’m just trying to discover the answer for a particular character in a specific situation.

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Love this topic. Thank you for putting it out there.

I say, “No, your novel does not have to have a moral,” because I don’t believe in many “have tos” when it comes creating art. That said, I prefer a story that tries to say something meaningful about humanity. That’s what I like to read, and that’s what I like to write.

Who am I to try and say something meaningful about humanity when so many before me have said it all so well? I’m human. Just like you Lady F. We are all uniquely qualified to say something about the human condition. The beauty of writing your stories is that they are yours, and yours alone. You write them from you own unique experience as a human. No human has ever existed who is just like you.

So, if you want to say something about the human condition, say it. Everything may have already been said before. But everything has not be said before by you.

Oh, if you want to write pure escapism with no intention of saying anything meaningful about the human condition, do that too. I’m guessing you’ll wind up saying something meaningful anyway.

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Thank you lovely people for your thoughts and the inspiration I got from your thoughts. I am impressed by your answers and I agree mostly with everyone. I respect your opinions and the reasons that led to them. It has been a pleasure talking to you. I am no longer stressed about morals in my novel. I will just write my story the way I want it to be written. I will certainly read K.M. Weiland and explore meaningful questions and be an unique human! Thanks to all of you!

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As anyone who’s raised kids, mentored entrepreneurs or taught young people can tell you, people learn things best, when they “discover” it themselves. So the best of authors (and you when you bring “fantastic people alive in fantastic landscapes with humor and affection”) let their readers meet, get to know and live vicariously the lives of these people. Every reader will then draw their own insights (sometimes exactly opposite ones) and perceive lessons and morals, most of which you’d have not intended or even conceived of. In many ways your writing is a blemishless mirror in whose characters, the readers will see themselves (and their unloving mothers or childhood friends). So I’d argue every story has many a moral, rarely of the writer’s making but mostly of the reader’s life journey!

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Thanks for this! I am very happy the moral happens naturally;)