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LDS Fiction: Character Agency (Writers should be like God, not Satan)

May 9, 2009

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2009 7:12 am

    Awesome post. This is one of those things that validates my own thoughts and writings. I have written a Book of Mormon historical fiction novel (to be released in the fall) and have adapted a number of situations with various characters, where things happen because of their own choice not just because a Gadianton started it (though that happens) I have wondered if sometimes I am pushing the edge too much on things but at least my publishers and your thoughts are with me in spirit. We always have a choice is a major running theme I use throughout. Glad I found your blog.

  2. May 9, 2009 2:05 pm

    Fascinating idea, and I agree. But the vast majority of LDS novels I’ve read in the last few years do follow this idea. For that matter, I can’t think of more than one or two that don’t. That’s good news, right? 🙂

  3. May 9, 2009 3:42 pm

    I completely agree, Emily and would extend the same thought to those dreary literary fiction New Yorker-ish stories that confine their characters to the inevitability of adultry (without repentence) or some other middlebrow form of ennui, alienation and meager rebellion. One never gets the feeling that there really is a *choice* and often the consequences of such choices are just more alienation and ennui and ambiguity*.

    What’s more, I’d suggest that agency is an underdeveloped theme in Mormon letters and needs to extend beyond just the choices of individual characters (and allowing them to make mistakes) to explorations of how agency interacts with religion, politics, culture, commerce, etc. and how Mormons, in particular, can carve out as much agency as possible for ourselves. And how God and his prophets struggle to gives us the means to become truly moral agents unto ourselves and we continue to reject or half-heartedly accept such gifts.

    * which is not to say that there is NO room for ennui, alienation and ambiguity in LDS/Mormon fiction.

  4. Emily permalink*
    May 9, 2009 7:08 pm

    David, thanks for visiting. Your book sounds intriguing; I think a balance of external and internal conflict is a good thing.

    Annette, you are more well-read in this genre than I am, by far. So I will have to take your word for it on the books I have not read. In my opinion, though, there were several character-agency challenged books in the batch I read recently (not all with LDS protagonists; my original post did not make that clear). I don’t think that they outweighed the non-agency challenged books. But I do think that character agency is still enough of an issue that it prompted the writing of this post.

    William-absolutely. There can be such a narrow moral range in the type of story you refer to. I think that the power to make good choices, and see those repercussions, is also very important, and something that can be absent from contemporary alientation/ennui/ambiguity-laden stories.

  5. May 10, 2009 4:24 pm


    Well said. (And I’m glad this post was not, as I expected, a mystical call to let books write themselves.)

  6. May 11, 2009 10:06 pm

    Excellent post, Emily! LDS writers need to make an extra effort to avoid pulling their punches so as to write stories and characters that sometimes mirror “Pleasantville.” And it IS ironic that this should be so in a community that trumpets the eternal principle of free agency.

  7. May 14, 2009 10:54 am

    I find it aggravating when characters are faced with a decision and ALWAYS take the righteous/right/expected choice, even when previous character development has shown that they wouldn’t do so.

    Even more disappointing when it concerns a topic that is one that has plenty of opportunity for exploration or is present in every day life.

    What usually follows is then the light treatment of the consequences of those decisions, the quick (yet totally heartfelt) repentence, and happily ever after tie off. It never happens in real life, so why pretend in a story?

    I’m thrilled to see honest writing being more available, from Bound on Earth, Path of Dreams, to Segullah and various blogs.

    Thanks for your post Emily =)

  8. Emily permalink*
    May 14, 2009 3:48 pm

    Th, no way. The “my books write themselves” idea is a pet peeve of mine.

    Tanya, yes it is ironic. And yet, it’s so painful to watch people we love make bad choices, that I can see how it’s easier to save them from themselves.

    Selwyn, I’m so glad you think of Segullah as a place for honest writing. That is one of the things we try for.

    We are about honest writing, and we think of it in two ways: “faithful probing” and “Happy literary.” Because honest writing is not just about the grit; it’s also about the joy, and if you leave out the joy then the writing doesn’t ring true either.

  9. October 28, 2010 6:26 pm

    Emily, I agree completely that we do a terrible injustice to the LDS experience if we don’t show how a whole lot of our eternal progression actually happens, by us making mistakes, bumbling around with do-gooder intentions and then witnessing some disasterous consequences, realizing we’re blowing it. Then humbly asking for more help and direction, pondering, praying, studying things out, and being willing to try over and over until we get it right. Authors cheat their characters when they take their agency away by making them only and all good.

    Another way I’ve felt that LDS authors can miss the mark with their characters is by showing that they don’t love them, even when the character is messing up and not making good choices. First of all, it makes a book really boring, because the conclusion seems foregone and all the thinking is already done. But also because I tend (in my contrary way) to think “hey, this person didn’t get a fair shake! All their troubles are seen as simplistic and self-caused, but things are a lot more complicated than that!” Then I start imagining the whole story rewritten from the maligned-character’s perspective, sort of like that version of Jane Eyre written from the perspective of the crazy first-wife. I get angry at the author. And I realize it’s because every character deserves to be loved at least by her author, just as we’re loved unconditionally by our Author.

    The last complaint I have about LDS fiction is that it’s quite often overtly didactic in nature. I think because of our daily and weekly habits of teaching each other, and ourselves, of absorbing moral messages so frequently, that it’s extremely hard for LDS writers to leave the moral out, or to leave the reader free to comprehend the rights and wrongs of things by themselves, while fully trusting in them to do so. It’s an extremely difficult habit to break, but one that I think utterly kills much LDS writing and art.

  10. Emily M. permalink
    October 29, 2010 2:19 am

    Ooh, Tatiana, that’s so interesting, and also true, the way the author can judge the people making bad choices. It’s a form of preachiness: telling the reader what to think about the character’s choices. So true.

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