We authors make morality neat and tidy. The protagonist is a hero struggling against obvious evils. The antagonist is a cutout villain who is easy to hate and hard to identify with. But that’s okay because they’re going to be vanquished by the end of the book anyway.
Generally speaking, stories written for younger readers are morality tales. Are such stories helpful, or are they too disconnected from messy reality? Our politics is not about right and wrong, it’s arguably about dueling narratives. Each side thinks they’re right.
Harry, Hermione and Ron are obviously the good guys, even if they bend a rule or two in pursuit of higher goals. Voldemort is from the bottom of the pit of pure evil.
Let’s try to equate the “Big Lie” to such archetypal plots. Who’s the evil villain, President Biden for stealing the election from Trump, or Trump for deceiving his followers and inciting them to attack the Capital and roll back voter rights?
The right and wrong of it depends on where you sit and what cable news you listen to. Trump supporters may truly believe they’re in the right. I have trouble connecting with their viewpoint, but it’s definitely how they think. To mirror that paradox in a plot, I’d need to write a story with two competing protagonists. Imagine alternating chapters about two characters, each of whom believes they are the hero. That would be a troublingly complex story to write for a young adult audience, and it would break all the conventions of the genre.
I flash back to an Agatha Christie plot in which we believe for most of the book that the narrator is a benign neighbor simply reporting his observations.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told in the first person by Dr. Sheppard, who knows all the suspects and the victim. Dr. Sheppard’s viewpoint is wry and intelligent and we enjoy seeing the plot unfold through his eyes, but it turns out he is deceiving everyone, including us.
There’s something satisfyingly modern about this 1926 masterpiece. Things are not as they seem of course, but more substantively, things are not as they ought to be. The family doctor, reliable narrator, helpful neighbor and victim’s friend is also a murderer? Christie was way ahead of her time with this morally ambiguous plot and I recommend you reread it to see if it feels relevant today.
I might write a novel with no antagonist, just two protagonists who believe each other to be the antagonist. But then again, I might not. I wonder if now more than ever a proper morality play is just what the good doctor ordered (not the murderous, deceptive doctor of Christie’s story but an imagined benevolent and caring one please!).
We need to set right not just the imagined wrongs of our stories, but the far greater moral corruption of our era. Stories that remind us of how things are supposed to work may be key to recapturing at least a small amount of innocence and decency in daily life. If not, if there is no way to reassert a moral high ground in politics and society as a whole, then we really will have to toss the old plots and characters and imagine new stories in which everyone is a villain to others and only a hero in their own imagination.
I hope not. I rather like a tale in which I know who to cheer for.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.