Rachelle Gardner posted recently asking the question, “Are writers responsible for what their characters say?” You should go read it, and perhaps the comments that follow if you have the time.
In my opinion, the question isn’t really “Are writers responsible?” It’s not like writers become possessed when writing and wake up six months later shocked by what’s on their page. Writers make decisions constantly about what to write and include in their manuscripts. When a writer includes a reprehensible character in their book, he is responsible for what that character says and does. The writer is the reason those actions and that dialogue is included in the story.
The question, instead, is “Are writers ethically obligated to censor their characters and stories so as not to offend the audience?” Which really begs the bigger question, “What is the code of ethics for writers?”
While I don’t profess that this code of ethics will be for everyone, this is my code of ethics as a writer:
1. As a writer, I should be skilled. My writing should not seem amateur or clunky. It should be honed by reading literature and by submitting my own works to critique from peers. I have an ethical obligation to revise and edit my work so that it is the most skilled presentation it can be.
2. As a writer, I should be honest. That is not to say I can’t write fiction, or write fantasy. Rather, I am ethically obligated to presenting an honest depiction of the invisible elements of humanity and the universe. I should avoid stereotyping characters or social groups, avoid sugarcoating the foibles and frailties of humanity, and avoid deceiving my readers about my own fears and shortcomings.
3. As a writer, I should be magical. I should seek to write stories glowing with extrahuman power. By my count, my stories should share the magical powers of nature:
a. Wind: The power to move others. My stories should inspire movement in the reader, and I have an ethical obligation to know what I am moving them toward and to make that destination beneficial.
b. Water: The power to refresh and give life. My stories should be new and exciting, reading them should feel like you’ve quenched a long standing thirst. I have an ethical obligation to know where people are thirsty and try to refresh and revive them.
c. Earth: The power to grow, feed, and flavor. My stories should inspire growth of thought and of character, and they should add spice and flavor to the lives of my readers. I have an ethical obligation to see where growth is needed and inspire development in that area.
d. Light: The power to illuminate. My stories should shine a light onto people’s lives and hearts, and also onto those who have been hidden and forgotten in society.
e. Fire: The power of change and destruction. My stories should tear down and destroy those things which need to be destroyed. Destruction is volatile and harsh, and I have an ethical obligation to be brave enough to bring the change about.
4. As a writer, I should be persistent. I should realize that writing is not just a self-serving exercise and I should never give up on storytelling, no matter what sort of discouragement or disappointment comes my way.
So, there you have it, my code of ethics as it were. If you have something to add, just put it in the comments. I'm always open to suggestions!