A Question Of Identity and Morality

For fictional characters, identity must be decided by the authors in much the same way identity must be deduced by each individual. We learn about both people and characters through their actions; we cannot look inside others’ heads, therefore taking their expressions of their thoughts as the truth. But in fiction, we can literally show a character’s thoughts. The question is: should we?

A story told from a first-person point-of-view must be approached with caution. How much of what a character says is truthful? From the third-person POV, we have another problem. How much of a character’s inner thoughts should the author reveal? He can tell you directly what each person is thinking if he wants, but if you want art to mirror life, we must reveal characters through their actions, should we not?

In that same vain, we should consider how we judge humanity in general. Can we judge someone based on their thoughts or actions? Obviously, since their actions openly apparent, clear, we can judge them by those, but by what motive they commit certain acts, we cannot say for sure. In fiction, this gives an awfully alluring enigma to characters. We watch them but are not privy to their private musings.

All of this interests me as a human being as well as a writer.

Because the implications are this: Do motives ever justify actions? Can we judge people based solely on their actions? I don’t mean legally, of course, which would be absurd, but in the sense of judging their moral character. Here is a quick excerpt from second part of “In Lickskillet” which I am currently editing that sparked this thought in me:

“You—bastard. You’re Satan, you know that?”

“I’m Lucifer, now, eh? Yeah, I am. I am the Devil. One and only, prince of Hell.” Blaine laughed at that and crossed to the broken window pane, staring out wistfully. “Only, I’m a good guy to me.”

Standing, I crossed to him, blowing my nose on my sleeve, hoping the sand would come out. “You can’t be a good guy. You’re Satan. That’s the whole point of Satan. He’s not supposed to be a good guy. I mean, he’s the Devil. He’s supposed to be evil.”

“Everyone is the good guy in his own story.” Blaine shrugged. “I’m sure if Satan rewrote the Bible, it would have gone a lot differently. Ended differently, too.”

Of course, in this passage Blaine alludes to the general theme of the entire novel, that everyone thinks himself or herself “a good guy.” Our personal narratives cast us as our own heroes, our own saviors. The entire plot centers on the hate crime trial Matthew Pepper faces as chief suspect of a murder; when I first began doing research for the book, it was on the Ku Klux Klan.

Why them, you ask. Well, why not?

I like to learn about things and people I know nothing about and the values and actions of the KKK paint them as monsters in my mind. Then I read an interesting story about the group doing community outreach, and I began to explore how groups as well as people share the dichotomy: we do terrible things, sometimes, but in our own minds, they are moral and just. How does my perception of reality differ from others’, and does this differentiation make anyone else less human? Can we truly label anyone as “un-lovable” because we disagree with them.

Here is a small disclaimer for the book that may explain it a little better:

I began writing the novel when a simple idea crossed my mind. People are not so bad; in fact, most are pretty good. Though it seems like a simple idea, we often forget that. We divide ourselves into groups, cliques, and war zones. We raise up fences between those who are richer or poorer than us, those of a different race, those who do not speak our language, those we perceive as close-minded while by not listening to their opinions we become small-minded. For that reason, I wanted to write about one of the most universally despised groups: Ku Klux Klan.

I think it’s important to realize that despite preconceptions we may have about any certain group of people, all should be treated equally under the law and in our hearts. It is exquisitely painful to accept people who might actually hate you, but that is the price of love.

So, that was my mission. Explore the family dynamics of the Pepper clan, explore how this issue drives a community apart and ultimately unites it. Each story is told from a different point of view, each trying to explain his or her actions. The protagonists, the self-proclaimed “heroes,” they do terrible, selfish things just as we all do. But they also do things we might find redeemable, honorable, and by letting each tell his or her own story, you break the walls of a versus-style plot.

As one character tells Declin (the main protagonist) in the book:

“There are no good or bad people, Mr. Ostrander. Only people.”

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About Derek Berry

Derek Berry is a novelist and spoken word poet. Derek is the author of Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (PRA Publishing, 2016). He co-founded and organizes The Unspoken Word, a literary non-profit based out of Charleston, SC, which provides an intendent home for the poetic arts through regular readings, workshops, and community fundraisers. He is on the Executive Board of the Charleston Poetry Festival, the inaugural production of which will be Fall 2017. His work has appeared in The Southern Tablet, Cattywampus, Charleston Currents, Illuminations, RiverSedge, and other journals.He has performed in venues across the United States and Germany. He has worked as a photographer’s assistant, busboy, and bookseller. He currently works at a curation facility for Cold War History.

Posted on September 2, 2012, in books, Characters, Controversy, culture, In Lickskillet, novel, writer, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think fiction is really trying to push the boundaries of what is “good” and “bad” and it is making some really interesting discoveries. It’s like a moral experiment conducted on behalf of humanity.

  2. Reblogged this on PESONA 8O81 and commented:
    A Question Of Identity and Morality

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