Thursday, September 5, 2019

Dear O'Abby: Do I Need to Punish My Characters?

Dear O'Abby,

I've written a book in which several characters do things that are morally questionable and I was wondering if, for readers to feel satisfied, they need to suffer in some way as a result.  I know that in times past, it was unusual for a character to break social mores without some kind of retribution, but in this modern day and age, is this still the case?

Yours,

Ambiguous.

Dear Ambiguous,

This is a very interesting question.  You're right that anti-social behavior is usually punished in fiction, even if it's a subtle punishment.  I think even if this is not entirely intentional, it's human nature to try and set things right and make sure people who break rules, even unspoken ones, pay for their sins.

It even has a name: poetic justice.

Fairy tales are built on this principle, as are fables.  Good behavior is rewarded; bad is punished.  So I guess it's no surprise that this continues through most fiction.  It's the basis of our storytelling tradition.

But as for it needing to be this way to be satisfying, I'm not entirely sure.  I'm struggling to think of a book in which a character does something terrible or immoral in which they don't receive some kind of punishment for it - usually something that forces them to change their ways.  Or kills them.

I guess it really depends on which character is breaking society's code and for what reason. If they have good, well-drawn reasons for their behavior, they may be able to get away from the situation without punishment.  It would need to be a really good reason though...  Something like murdering a pedophile to save a child.  Doing something evil for the greater good is an acceptable trope.  Especially if there's a healthy dose of guilt and remorse around the event.

Yet, if the anti-social act is sexual, rather than violent, I think it might take more than guilt and remorse to redeem the character.  For some reason we seem to consider anti-social violent acts more acceptable than sexual ones.

But let's take this to the readers.  Can a book be satisfying if anti-social behavior isn't punished?  Can you name a book where this happens?  I'm now kind of fascinated by this question and will be looking to answer it with every book I read from now on.  And probably every one I write too!

X O'Abby

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