Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, July 26, 2008

LDS Morality for Non-LDS Characters

by Sariah S. Wilson

I recently finished "The Host" by Stephenie Meyer, and while I thought it was good, it wasn't a gripping, sucking me in sort of read that "Twilight" was. I found that I could easily put it down and walk away from it. I had some problems with faulty/flawed logic in the story, but it basically came down to I just didn't find it as fascinating as I've found some of her previous work.

But one of the things that occurred to me while reading it is how differently I judged her book morality-wise than I would if the same work had been written by a non-member. People are intimate before marriage (which one could argue would have to happen since there was no one there to marry the people. I'd like to see an end of the world saga with Mormon characters and see how it was all worked out. What would you do if you a) couldn't be married in the temple at all and b) couldn't really get married civilly either?). There's swearing, lots of violence. Definitely on the milder end of the scale, nothing too bad or too bothersome.

And one could dismiss such things out of hand by arguing that none of the characters were LDS.

But should a book by an LDS author be held to a higher standard?

This is something I think about A LOT. I have a time travel book I'm working on, and it is set before the Restoration. The hero gets very angry/jealous and ends up getting drunk, something he never normally would do. He does something inappropriate while drunk (off stage) and the next day tries to make immediate and total amends for his misdeeds. He's sickened by his dishonorable behavior and vows to never let himself lose control that way again.

So, technically, he's not committing a sin as it's set a hundred years before the Word of Wisdom became commandment. Nor is he LDS, and he lives in a time where drinking is very common and accepted (even expected). He is sorry for what he's done, repents in a sense (only to himself, not in prayer), and moves on from it.

But should my morals govern the hero's?

I know in some LDS fiction I've read/heard about, characters are written that commit sin but pay the consequences and/or repent. I think that is good and important for an LDS audience to read about people maybe undergoing some of their same trials who conquer and overcome.

But when writing for a national audience, when you're writing characters who are not LDS, what's acceptable? Would you have a detective who goes to a bar after he's done with a hard day's work? It's realistic and normal for that to happen. Would you feel uncomfortable as a reader/writer of such a story? Would you feel like you were promoting something you considered wrong, or would you feel like you were being true to your character?

Do you have a line where certain behaviors are okay (like maybe drinking or smoking) but others are not (pre-marital relations)?

Or do you think it's important to have non-LDS characters conform to your own standards?


At 7/26/2008 10:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a way to have non-Mormon characters conform to LDS standards and not make them essentially Mormons characters?

Perhaps if they are Seventh Day Adventists or members of other religions with similar values to the LDS.

For me the issues is one of graphic-ness. If you get to graphic in the descriptions of certain things, then I'm going to become uncomfortable as a reader. Now, various Mormons have various notions about what is graphic and what isn't. But on the whole, I'm not sure you can create believable characters who hold 100% to LDS standards.

On the other hand, you can choose to focus on moments in their story that aren't super graphic. It's how old movies did it, right? And not only are they not offensive, but the restrictions in what they could show often led to some great editing and acting. There are ways to show that someone is a total cad without reveling in their caddishness.

At 7/26/2008 11:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read "Ender's Game" by very-LDS author Orson Scott Card? Not exactly Sunday School reading...

At 7/26/2008 11:14 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I think you have to be true to your characters. What would they do in real life? Typically your own view of morality will show through in what the good characters stand for and what their core beliefs about right and wrong are. Basically, do they have a moral compass?

So in your case Sariah, the man who gets drunk and does something inappropriate represents your morals because he regrets his actions the next day.

Is going to a bar really a moral issue for a non-LDS person though? Does the fact that a Catholic Priest might drink make him less moral than someone who doesn't drink? Or does it just mean that he has a different set of commandments he is following? I believe that you can have a person who drinks, smokes, and is living with a woman who he is not married to, and that person can be as moral as any bishop. It all depends on what his understanding of right and wrong are at the time. How can you break a commandment if you don’t know it?

I believe that if you try to make all of your characters follow LDS standards, you will begin writing books that are no longer truthful. And in that case you may as well start writing greeting cards. (Not that I have anything against greeting card writers! :) )

At 7/26/2008 11:37 PM, Blogger Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I think we should treat our characters how we treat real people. I have many friends who aren't LDS and I don't feel scandalized if they don't follow the Word of Wisdom, for instance. They don't have that belief, and so I don't judge them as if they do.

When it comes to non-member characters, shouldn't they be granted that same respect? Let them be true to who they are, perhaps.

It's a tricky situation though as an LDS author. I felt uncomfortable reading the Twilight books, even though the romance in them was tame compared to other books I've read. I thought of my fifteen year old cousin who is besotted with the books, and loves that a member of our church wrote them. And I wince at the thought of her using Bella as a role model.

It's a deeply personal decision, really.

At 7/27/2008 2:10 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

It IS a deeply personal decision, but I agree with the comments thus far. I really do believe that characters have a "right" to be themselves. Even in the fluffy, carefully santized stuff I write, there are characters who do not believe as I believe nor behave as I behave -- even the "good" guys. (If they did, my stuff would be way more boring than it is!)

I once went a round with Covenant over whether or not a minor character who was portrayed as being LDS should believe that the Ten Tribes would return from outer space. (She kept Oreo cookies and cherry Kool-Ade on hand just in case "the brethren" landed in her backyard.) Some copyeditor or other worried that it might "lead people astray." I maintained that those people would have to be pretty far afield to begin with. I won that one, but they cut a character in another book faster than you could dot the I in prositute. Perhaps they should have, but I liked her.

Thought-provoking post, Sariah. I'll be interested to read others' perspectives on a touchy issue.

At 7/27/2008 2:12 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Oops. While you're dotting the I in my last post, could you also please add another T? I know I shouldn't try to type after 8 PM and yet I persist...

At 7/27/2008 11:08 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

What is most troubling to me in discussions like this (and the one simmering over at LDS Publisher) is that, though not intended I'm sure, there is a sense that a life spent following the Master is somehow not sufficient. That seeking to be informed but yet retain the saving virtues of a child is at some level (or many levels) deficient. Lacking. Without depth. Of regrettable upbringing. Uncultured. Uneducated. Unacceptable. Simple minded. Blind.

At what point do we shed our innocence, but still retain our virtue? When are we finally initiated enough in the things of this world? Informed enough? Experienced enough? Ten edgy novel? Twenty? A hundred? When do we rally the courage to walk away? Or do we simply become past feeling and never leave it on the adult book shelf?

When is enough enough?

Is there something so lacking in a life spent in discipleship that we are drawn with so much curiosity to explore beneath every evil unturned stone?

At 7/27/2008 12:23 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...


Not entirely sure where you were going with that, so I may be way off base in my response, but here goes.

It sure sounds like what you are suggesting is that writing or reading about characters who are not Christ-like enough is somehow unworthy. Evil. Immoral. Inappropriate. Etc.

Hmmm. Wasn't it Christ himself who said that the well were not in need of a physician? Didn't he go out to the people? Didn't he tell parables of people whose morals were a little less than perfect?

I didn't see any comments on this list suggesting that we write anything we wouldn't be proud to hold up and put our names on. What I read was people talking about writing books that are about the world we live in. This world includes good people, bad people, and mostly people in between. Are we as authors do duck our heads under our wings and say, "All is well in Zion?" We can’t all write scriptural-based fiction, as wonderful as that might be. And no one wants to read that all the time anyway.

I'll write more about this tomorrow, but while we weren't looking our children are reading less and less. As authors we can only write books about kids who choose the right, and mothers and fathers that are perfect. But if we do, I will guarantee you that kids will not be increasing their literacy under our watch. And LDS fiction will certainly not grow beyond the small group of people who read it now.

I want to write and read books that are believable. I want kids to read a book about a girl struggling with moral decisions and say, yeah, I struggle with those too. I want to see books that kids and their parents can discuss and use as real discussion points. I want to write books where the moral lesson is not used as a club to hit the reader over the head, but bubble up like ground water to immerse the reader as they enjoy a gripping story. And, heaven forbid, occasionally I just want to entertain.

So let’s not tell readers or writers that exploring the human condition with books that have depth, meaning, and characters of all walks and races of life is somehow digging evil out from under stones. Otherwise I may have to do a lot of rock turning.

At 7/27/2008 12:34 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

If it's an "end of the world" type book with no temples and no government, therefore marriage is not possible, then it couldn't be LDS based because we believe that the gospel will remain on the earth forevermore. :>)

But, if you are without a gov't (and therefore, not chance at civil marriage), I don't think that it would be problematic to "marry" yourselves. After all, the purpose of civil marriage is to be recognized by the state. If there is no state, there is no need for recognition. You can create your own government and declare yourself legally and lawfully wed.

And I think non-LDS characters can have different standards than LDS characters. After all, I don't freak out when my non-member FIL drinks his coffee at my kitchen table. Although the offspring takes great delight in informing him that "satan drinks coffee!"

At 7/27/2008 2:03 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

I agree with those who say your characters need to be true to themselves. I don't mind non-LDS characters who live according to the world's standards. It's the level of description that sometimes bothers me.

And just to prove that two intelligent people can have opposite viewpoints––I so loved The Host more than the Twilight series! :)

At 7/27/2008 4:19 PM, Blogger The Gerlings said...

It depends on the world your creating. If you're writing historical fiction I'd excpect the morals of the character to reflect what they were brought up with. I don't want to see someone in 24 BC drinking bottled water or apple juice, the anachronisim would make me put down the book.

At the same time, you can temper what you put in the writing. You don't need to spell out the swear word, you can write, "He cursed long and loud." You can leave out descriptions of gore or nudity. The characters may not have standards, but the author does and you shouldn't justify bending those standards for anything.

At 7/27/2008 5:24 PM, Blogger Pat said...

I'm really enjoying this discussion.
I can't comment as a writer, but as a reader, if I'm reading a story that has a conflict between good and evil, I need to see some contrast.
If the worst thing the "bad guy" does is refuse to wear a necktie to Sunday School, I'm just going to say "get off his back and leave the poor guy alone."
Don't insult my intelligence by pretending there is no evil in the world - show me that it can be overcome, and how.
(At the same time, don't make me feel like I have to gouge my eyes out after reading it either!)
I liked house 6's suggestions on how to deal with that...
The characters in Stephanie's Fool me Twice (just for example) did some pretty despicable things, but I wasn't offended at how she described that to me (and can still feel good about recommending it to my daughter, which I did) - if she had glossed over it more, the victory at the end would have been a bit less satisfying.

Just my 2 cents, for what it's worth...

At 7/27/2008 9:59 PM, Blogger Heather Moore said...

Sariah--you opened a can of worms! Good for you :) I'm probably the weird one here, but I really enjoyed THE HOST. Yes, it was more "edgy" than the Twilight series. But the writing was really fantastic, and I would commend Meyer any day for growing in her craft and not getting lazy and sliding backward like other best-selling authors who are churning out book after book. I found myself skimming the action scenes just because I'm an impatient reader. Other times I set the book down and laughed outloud, saying to myself, "This is the weirdest book I ever read." (I'm not a Sci-fi reader, so my experience is really limited).

As for those who write historical fiction . . . I have a pet peeve . . . when I read a historical book or watch a movie set over 100 years ago, and there is bad language that wasn't even "invented" then--that really bugs me.

About the dilemma of LDS writers putting in "worldly" stuff into their books, there again, I might be the odd person out. If it's not gratuitous or out-of-character, I'm fine with it. When someone holds a gun to your head, it's just not realistic to say, "Darn you."

I've known people from all walks of life and I can say 100% that the best mother that I've ever seen in action is one of my best friends. And she is Catholic. Yes, she wears some less-than-modest clothing, and drops some less-than-favorable language. But she is incredible. If I can be a tenth like her, I think I might have a chance.

So in my non-LDS writing, I've decided to let the characters be who they are.

At 7/30/2008 10:29 AM, Blogger AnnaleeMG said...

I am not a writer either, but a reader. My opinion is that people are who they are. I know more active LDS members who have: cheated on their spouse, smoked, drank, done drugs, been in jail, lied, stolen, and caused many people great distress. So, even if you are writing about "LDS people" with "LDS" standards, we are not all living by those standards 24/7.

That being said, just as I have turned the dvd player off because I have seen/heard more than I want to hear, I have also put a book down to never open it again because I just don't have to read the extremely graphic stuff.

At 7/30/2008 1:42 PM, Blogger Jason said...

The funny thing about life is it's not sanitized, so why sanitize your book? Unless you're intending it to be read by kids there is really no point.

I think a common mistake many "LDS" people make when watching movies or reading books that have seedier content is to assume that because the book/film contains said content, it must be promoting it. Such a notion is absurd.

Slaughter House 5, for example, one of the greatest books ever written has a great deal of violence in it, but it is not promoting violence. It is speaking to the horrors of war. The same could be said of Catch 22 (also one of the greatest pieces of literature of our time).

At 7/30/2008 1:49 PM, Blogger coltakashi said...

Gosh, I am surprised that Covenant was worried about a UFOs are the Lost Ten Tribes Mormon, since I have known of such in real life, and Robert Farrell Smith has much crazier Mormons in his books.

I think the way to answer this question is to look at what the first Mormon wrote--I really mean Mormon! He was of course telling us about real people, but they did some really nasty things, some of which Mormon witnessed first hand as his people grew ripe for destruction. Since the book he compiled and wrote is the "most perfect" book in the sense of bringing us closer to God than any other book (see the Introduction), surely portraying the evil that men do is not going to per se have a bad effect on us as writers or on our readers. The important thing is the context.

We know, for instance, that only the wickedest people get destroyed by God, while many of the most righteous people (e.g. the converts at Ammonihah who were burned to death, and Abinadi, who was surely the model for the people who did this crime) are destroyed by evil men. A lot of medium level bad people live long lives that look pretty attractive in material terms, with pretty wives, big houses, and flashy cars. This is reality, it is truth, and therefore, by definition, (a sad) part of the Gospel.

Thus, contrary to the fantasy that the people who murdered Joseph Smith suffered terrible fates, most of them were praised by their neighbors and even were elected to Congress! Sometimes the bad people don't get their just reward until they are resurrected and brought to stand before "the pleading bar of the great Jehovah" to be judged for their sins.

So if you portray in your fiction a character who does bad things, but does not suffer any visible consequences for it, you are portraying reality. The whole Plan of Salvation is based on us being allowed to play out our goodness or our wickedness here in mortality, which is only one short part of the whole picture of life. To immediately punish every bad deed by a character would not be playing God, it would be playing Lucifer!

Orson Scott Card has an interesting blog review right now comparing the movies Mamma Mia! with The Dark Knight. Clearly, the Batman film depicts much more intense evil, but he argues that the viewer comes away with an intense experience in learning morality and the importance of such choices. On the other hand, Mamma Mia, according to Card, tells us that the most important choices in our life, especially about marriage and raising children, can be ignored or treated casually. Which kind of story would we as Latter-day Saints want to be telling each other, and the world? Which story would actually help people to be better people?

Is it the story where good people are weak and often lack courage and retain prejudices, and where bad people are powerful? Where the best person of all suffers the absolute most, not because of being guilty but because he is the most innocent of all?

Welcome to the Gospels.

At 7/30/2008 4:44 PM, Blogger Anna Maria Junus said...

As members of the church when we get baptized we make covenants. When we go to the temple we make more covenants.

However, non-LDS people don't make those covenants and shouldn't be held up to the same standards.

You have to write was is true for your character.

Just because a non-LDS character drinks a glass of wine, doesn't mean that they then have to go out and repent or suffer the consequences. That simply rarely happens in real life. Nor does it make them a bad person. They haven't broken any covenant because they didn't make one.

As a reader I would expect that an LDS writer would keep swearing and sexual scenes either non-existant or down to a minimum. That doesn't mean I don't think their characters shouldn't swear or have sex, it just means it can be suggested, not described in full detail.

At 7/30/2008 8:53 PM, Blogger Sariah Wilson said...

I want to make sure I thank everyone for posting. You guys have had some amazing insights and thoughts on this issue, and you've certainly made me think even deeper on this subject. Thank you for that!

At 7/31/2008 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Orson Scott Card says a writer’s morals will show up in a writer’s work, whether that writer likes it or not. Like scientists have found, there is no such thing as a totally neutral observer.

Just the presence of evil in fiction doesn’t make it bad—it’s when writers caress and praise evil through literature that they become not-moral writers. There is no such thing as “just entertainment”; that argument is a refuge from personal (and parental) moral responsibility.

Fiction always moralizes. I’ve noticed that when questioned on what they read or watch, people tend to justify their choices based on some redeeming moral in the story. For example “I watch Buffy, the Vampire Slayer because she battles both evil demons and everyday human problems.” It sounds so much more impressive than “I watch Buffy because I love the fight scenes and the tight leather pants.”

Take the Twilight series, for example, since we’re already talking about Stephanie Meyer’s works here.

I teach the Beehives and Mia Maids in my ward—that’s young women ages 12-16—and I have lost count of how many moms think the Twilight series is a great read for their daughters.

The moms I’ve spoken with say things like “I heard that the characters don’t have sex,” and “It’s like the teen version of Harry Potter, right?” and, most often, “But it’s written by a Mormon, and I bought it at Deseret Book, so it’s safe.”

I’ve read some vampire romance before. Twilight is the teenybopper decaf version of Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. However, it doesn’t mean that Twilight is “good”, in the moral sense.

For one thing, according to the moms and teens I know, its major moral claim-to-fame is that “Bella and Edward don’t have sex! Isn’t that great?”

Yes, Bella and Edward don’t “Do It”, but they do spend a lot of time wishing they could Do It, talking about Doing It, and very nearly Doing It. This book is filled with sex.

Twilight focuses on physical longing, creating compelling sexual tension--great for selling an addictive romance novel for big bucks—but an example of chastity and moral fortitude, it ain’t.

It is as if there were a support group called Rottweilers Against Mauling Toddlers: “You know when you bite them and shake them and drag them around and they bleed and cry? Yeah…let’s not do that.”

Like I said, normal fiction has a lot of sexual tension. Readers like it and buy it, so publishers like it and publish it, so writers like it and write it. “Normal” doesn’t always mean “moral”.

The reason I judge Bella and Edward so harshly, and not other fictional characters, is because Stephanie Meyers and her publisher have marketed it as “the Mormon vampire novel”. That’s an interesting juxtaposition, isn’t it?

I like Tom Clancy; if Amazon showed me a Tom Clancy clone with the blurb “it’s an Amish technothriller” then I’d be curious too!

By capitalizing on the Mormon “brand” connection, Meyers has opened her stories and characters to Mormon-brand moral judgements. It wouldn’t be an issue otherwise.

Males are visually stimulated, so let’s make a visual analogy. Just as Twilight is the tamer version of vampire romance, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is the tamer edition of Playboy and Penthouse.

So why don’t we pass out swimsuit editions to the young LDS men while we’re passing out Twilight to young LDS women?

It’s not as bad as pictures of fully unclothed women; the rest of the world doesn’t think there’s anything morally wrong with it; and I’ll bet you my bottom dollar that those young men will be just as absorbed in that magazine as young women are in the pages of Twlight.

After all, not being able to look away from something is a sure measure of its moral and intellectual worth.

The swimsuit models aren’t LDS, so we shouldn’t judge them by LDS standards. In fact, we should applaud the swimsuit models for managing to keep even those bikinis on.

I’m sure the young men will be strengthened in their moral fortitude after seeing the full-color consequences of immodesty. It’ll broaden their minds and make them better missionaries, husbands and fathers.

And, hey, it’s just for entertainment, anyway. Lighten up.

At 7/31/2008 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read an interesting column in the New York Times and this person's take on what Twilight will do to this generation of young women.

She worries that in the real world, young men are spending so much time watching pornography on the Internet that they will never be satisfied with normal women and normal relationships.

She said "This sure sounds like trouble to me: A generation of guys who will settle for nothing less than a porn star meets a generation of women who expect their boyfriend to crawl through their bedroom window at night and just nuzzle gently until they fall asleep."


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