Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Varian: And the moral of this story is...

(Note: Originally posted at Teenreads.com)

In my latest novel, SAVING MADDIE, preacher’s son Joshua Wynn struggles with himself, his parents and his religion during his quest to “save” his one-time best friend, “bad girl” Madeline Smith. Because of the various themes of the novel, I always try to prepare myself for a wide variety of questions before a book event. But out of all the strange, unusual, and uncomfortable things I’m asked, there’s only one question that really makes me squirm:

What is the moral of your story?

Sometimes parents (and it’s almost always parents who ask this) will pose the question in different ways. What will my child learn from this book? Is this book educational, because that’s all I buy for my children? Of course, it’s never lost on me that the parent usually asking this is carrying the newest romance novel, with a strapping duke and buxom duchess plastered on the cover.

But back to the question about morals --- once the parent asks, I usually hem and haw for a few seconds, trying to come up with a good answer. Then I break down and lay the truth on her:

“I don’t know.”

After the parent picks her jaw up from the floor, I go on to explain. I don’t think it’s my place as a fiction author to force a moral on my readers. And given that I write for teens, that goes double. I believe it’s my job to put the information out there -- to create fully-developed, three-dimensional, slightly-flawed characters, and let my readers decide for themselves what is or isn’t “morally sound judgment.”

Now, notice that I’m not saying that my novels don’t have a moral; I’m just saying that I don’t know what it is. Because truth be told, I want my readers to think about all of these moral questions. In SAVING MADDIE, I want readers to wrestle with the question of whom exactly needs saving in the novel. Of who’s good, and who’s bad. And I want them to make their own decisions; their own conclusions. Just like Joshua, and just like Maddie.

I welcome my readers to be active participants in the author-reader relationship. I want them to feel invested and reach their own conclusions about the work. I want them to form an opinion about the plot, the characters, the theme -- everything. Because at the end of the day, the reader’s opinion is the only opinion that really matters.


  1. So true. Luckily, I don't think I've ever been asked that question. But I'm pretty sure my answer would be the same as yours! :)

  2. I'm curious, do your readers ever find morals in a story that completely surprise you?

  3. I was just asked this by someone in my writer's group about a WIP. I was as flummoxed as you. So your post is both timely and reassurig. I know she was trying to help me be clearer in my own mind what I'm aiming for. Questions like that are way too reductive for me. The moral is for the reader to discover rather than for the author to impose -- and as Ben Spendlove said above, the reader's interpretation might surprise! The richer the work, the more complex or ambiguous the moral may be.

  4. I wrote in the inspirational market for many years. There, the story was often considered a vehicle for imparting a lesson. As the years went by felt more and more constrained by this. It's hard to let your characters breathe when they're busy teaching the readers a lesson.

    Now, I tell people that I do have a worldview and I imagine that my story reflects it, though it may not be obvious and easy to nail down. My characters may not agree with my worldview, either, so they're not necessarily my mouthpieces.

    Storytelling is too organic a process for me to be expected to tie each aspect of the story to a useful lesson.

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