LDS Fiction: Character Agency (Writers should be like God, not Satan)
In an earlier post, found both here and here, I talked about how good writing is honest, and allows the reader agency. I would like to add another point to that: good writing also allows its characters agency, meaning that it allows them the freedom to make bad choices (sometimes really bad choices) and experience fully their consequences.
That is also a supremely Mormon doctrine: our agency existed in the pre-earth life, and part of the reason we followed Heavenly Father’s plan was so that we would be allowed to keep our agency, and not be forced to be good.
You see the parallel I’m going for, I’m sure, but I’m going to talk about it a little more anyway. I think it’s kind of ironic that, even though allowing full expression of agency is a core part of our theology, inherent in the most basic outline of the Plan of Happiness, there can be a tendency among some LDS writing to either 1-not allow their characters to make bad choices when faced with a moral dilemma, or 2-not allow their characters to really feel the weight of the consequences of those choices.
Now, sometimes writers get around this dilemma by having their LDS characters face problems created by others. The Mormons do not make bad choices themselves, and all the problems in their lives are the result of others’ bad decisions. While this preserves the illusion that these characters are perfect people, the problem here is that no one has a life free from self-created problems. No one. It is not an honest portrayal of characters, and the conflict is all external. And the characters here are living out one of the great lies: if you are a good person, you will never make choices that contribute to your own unhappiness. The only unhappiness you experience will come from the way other people hurt you. But this is false; we all experience unhappiness as a result of bad decisions we’ve made. And we do ourselves, our literature, and our doctrine a disservice when the primary opposition Mormons in novels face is created by people who don’t like Mormons.
So, if a novel does not allow its characters to make tough choices themselves, and then experience their consequences (not just the consequences of others’ bad decisions), then … that’s Satan’s plan: compelling all to be good.
I would add to this the idea I expressed here, which is that choices and consequences can also follow the conventions for the genre. Meaning that the moral dilemmas a teenager resolves in a light teen romance are going to be different than those an adult makes in a mystery/thriller, which will in turn be different from those resolved in a work of historical fiction. But in each of these genres, there is plenty of room for characters to be faced with moral dilemmas, choose badly (but still stay true to character), and then deal with the consequences.
What concerns me, though, is the idea that LDS fiction should portray its LDS characters as above the fray, as though being Mormon made it so that they always made good choices, always perfectly implemented the things they have been taught. If our own scriptures allow our heroes to write irate letters to innocent people (Moroni to Pahoran), wrestle with deep anger and resentment against murderous brothers (2 Nephi 4, Nephi to Laman and Lemuel), and choose to deliberately disobey God’s counsel in the face of peer pressure (Joseph Smith, Martin Harris, 116 pages), why should our literature save its Mormon protagonists from making these and other errors, and fully experiencing the results of their decisions? Not only does forcing Mormon protagonists to be perfectly good make less effective writing, it also denies them agency.
In LDS fiction, more than any other place, we ought to portray a moral universe that reflects our deepest core doctrine: we are moral agents unto ourselves.