I’ve written four novels. The first two I think of as “starter” novels. The third was an urban fantasy that I still think about doing something with, and the fourth, well… the fourth is a psychological thriller about the impact of a relationship between a teenage boy and a sociopathic killer. I wanted to examine the sometime fragility of morality, and walk through some of the circumstances that can take us down one path or another. I gave it to two of my writing friends to read: the first had an almost visceral, negative reaction, while the second enjoyed it, and found it hard to put down. I eventually came to the conclusion that their reactions were largely due to the fundamental differences in their worldviews: the first reader has spent his life fighting for a range of social justice issues – he has a strong sense of right and wrong, and a low tolerance for brutality. The second reader spent seventeen years as a homicide detective – she has a strong sense of right and wrong, as well, but hers is tempered by years of hands-on experience dealing with the worst kind of criminals.
Story as Moral Universe
Every story creates its own, moral universe, that varies in depth and complexity based on how nuanced the plot and characters are, and how wide and deep the storytelling is. This morality plays out not just through the actions of the hero, but through the entirety of the narrative: the characters, the setting, the world, and the small and large resolutions. Is the world a dark one, where life itself is suffering? If so, what (if anything) gives life meaning? Is life happy, until something intrudes? What intrudes, and what happens, then? What behaviors are ultimately punished, and which are forgiven, or rewarded? All the elements work together to create an authorial worldview.
The worldview of J.R.R. Tolkien is one where evil at times may seem stronger than good – but good can and will triumph, through bravery, friendship, and sacrifice. The lines between good and evil are stark: evil is tempting, but good can and for the most part will resist. The universe of The Sopranos is one where good and evil are mixed together in a confusing jumble. Evil is ambiguous, day-to-day, and the definitions of “good” and “justice” are unclear. The world of H.P. Lovecraft is one of existential nihilism: humans are tiny and insignificant, pitted against elder gods whose motivations are unknowable, and whose visages alone are enough to cause madness.
It’s worth noting that a work’s worldview doesn’t reflect the totality of the author’s: it is at best a facet, reflecting some portion of the creator’s larger truth in the form of ideas, hopes, and intentions.
Validation, Provocation, or Reassurance?
Most of the stories we consume validate our worldview at the level at which society operates: broad, with an understanding that there are different ways to experience the world around us. At a personal level, though, the authorial worldview may validate us more directly. Tolkien’s worldview speaks to religious, moral perspectives, while The Sopranos may resonate with those who see the world in shades of gray. Existential nihilists will see themselves reflected in the characters of Lovecraft, who act in a world without larger meaning. Most authorial worldviews (including the ones above) express more than just a single point of view, even if a general pattern can be discerned. These points of view may be at opposition or sympathy to one another as they play out. That said, the vast majority of narratives offer elements other than just worldview to engage a reader. A nihilist can love Tolkien (I do!), but those aspects of his work that speak directly to the moral and quasi-religious parts of his worldview aren’t the parts that I feel most connected to. I enjoy the magic, the epic scale, and the ongoing conflict. I enjoy the battles between good and evil: they just doesn’t speak to me as personally.
Sometimes an authorial worldview is provocative, intentionally or unintentionally. I suspect that my nihilism was unintentionally provocative (and irritating) to my activist friend. I don’t write to provoke, but some writers specifically create authorial worldviews to challenge their readers (to influence them, to normalize, or to challenge defaults). Though I believe individual truth serves story more sharply than an intentionally provocative narrative, the two can exist side by side when executed skillfully; as a reader, I enjoy having my worldview challenged, regardless of the intent.
Being reassured by an authorial worldview is similar to being validated; I include it to highlight the power a worldview has to provide hope, even if we question its honesty. Romance novels aren’t necessarily validating: does anyone believe that love always triumphs? But they are reassuring. Do the good guys win as much as they do in novels, television and movies? As much as we might read for validation or even provocation, we also want authorial worldviews that allow us to believe (even for a little while) that love can save us, and that good can triumph. We want worldviews that make us feel good.
Who Do You Listen To? Who are You Speaking To?
The easiest fiction for me to read is the kind that validates me. I’m sensitive to intentional provocation unless it is inextricably connected to the needs of the narrative, in which case the difference in worldview becomes, rather than a distraction, an exciting element to engage with.
As writers, we are better able than ever to reach out to readers who are in sympathy with our authorial worldview(s), and as readers, we are better able to hunt out authors whose worldviews we enjoy. Can you name an author you’ve read, whose worldview you found validating? Provocative? Reassuring? If so, how?