Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

Writing Novels that Consider Their Ethics.

Books that bludgeon the reader over the head with moral or ethical thoughts are dreary, tedious things. How can you incorporate ethics into your novel without being dreary?

So here’s the thing: part of the purpose of writing fiction, especially (I think) science fiction, is about asking “what if?” questions. Properly done, I believe good science fiction isn’t about ray guns or spaceships or robots, it’s about people. It’s about asking, who are we? What are we like? If you change the technological environment around us, how does that change us? If we meet aliens, what would that tell us about who we are? How might they hold a mirror up to us? If we invent sapient robots, what would that show us about ourselves? You get the idea.

Considering “what if?” questions about ethics is just as valid as asking “what if?” questions about technology. There are a couple of ways you can do this.

You can go the Ayn Rand route: start with an ethical idea you want to hammer home, then create contrived situations and two-dimensional characters that you use as blunt instruments to hammer on your point (culminating, no doubt, in a climactic scene where your protagonist saves the day by delivering a nine-page speech).

Or you can create vivid world, set your characters down in it, and let them explore the ethical dimensions of their choices, sometimes in ways you, the author, maybe didn’t expect. You can even create characters whose ethical ideas you as author don’t agree with (see, for example, Magneto from X-Men—the only interesting character, I believe, in otherwise dull comic-book fare).

But you asked specifically about unexpected ways of incorporating ethics in science fiction, so here you go:

The novels Eunice and I write in this series are porn. They started out, deliberately and consciously, as porn. The world arose from Eunice’s fantasies.

Bt they’ve become a playground for exploring ideas about ethics, especially sexual ethics and philosophy.

In Unyielding Devotion, part of the plot involves a character who participates in a voluntary, consensual activity in which he’s locked in a cage with another person and they’re given Blessings—psychologically active dugs, essentially—that drive them into a frenzy, for the entertainment of the guests at a party.

Later in the story, the character Royat volunteers to be in the cage a second time; part of the plot revolves around his struggle to deal with his own feelings in the aftermath.

So, the bit about ethics:

“I liked watching you with her,” he said, changing the subject. “The way you touched, the way you looked at each other, it was beautiful.”

“It wasn’t real. It was the Blessing you gave us.”

“Oh?” Bartomel set his brushes down in a small tray clamped to the bottom of the easel. “The Blessings brought it out, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.”

“What do you mean?”

“The gods offer us all kinds of Blessings. They change the way we feel, but they don’t change who we are. They may exaggerate things within us, but those things are already there. If they weren’t, the Blessing would have nothing to work on.”

A vision came into Royat’s head, vivid and overwhelming: the heady thrill he felt as he pounded into Kaytin in the cage, her shrieks and sobs as she beat on his sides, the raw exhilaration as he clutched her tight against him and thrust harder, the delirious pleasure when he came. “I—“

“Hey, are you okay?”

“No. No, I’m not okay. I have to go.” Royat fled to the safety of his quarters,where he rolled trembling onto the bed, clutching a pillow tightly.

Some time later, a chime filled the room. “You have a visitor.”

“Let them in.”

“Royat!” Arjeniza said. “Are you ready to—what’s wrong?”

“Am I a terrible person?” Royat blurted.

Arjeniza rocked back on her heels. “Now there’s an interesting question. My experience of you is limited. I haven’t seen anything to make me think so. Why?”

“I…I need to talk to you. Formally, as a priestess of the Ostiary.”

“Very well.” Arjeniza bowed deep, one hand touching her forehead. “Come.”

She led him out to the courtyard in the front of the Temple. He stood silently behind her as she clipped several flowers from beneath the oddly-shaped trees. She carried them to a small, unremarkable door, which she unlocked with the heavy key from her pocket. As he sat at the narrow table that divided the room, she locked the door behind them.

Royat waited while she went through the ritual of preparing the tea. She placed the red flower petals in the hot water, lifted the cup skyward, and drank. Her pupils expanded. She followed the simple ritual to prepare the bitter violet tea, then placed it and a sweet in front of him. Royat raised the cup to his lips with trembling hands, then bit into the small confection.

“You are troubled,” Arjeniza said. “What’s wrong?”

“I spoke to Bartomel today. He told me something that hit me hard. He said…” Royat lapsed into silence.

Arjeniza poured more of the violet brew into his cup and placed another confection on the small wooden tray. Royat stared at the cup for a long time without moving. She made no effort to hurry him. Eventually, he swallowed the tea in one gulp and washed the taste away with the confection. The room shifted and blurred slightly around him. “He said,” Royat went on, “that Blessings only intensify what’s already there. They can’t act on feelings we don’t possess.”

“That feels true,” Arjeniza said. “I don’t know if it is true, but it feels true.”

“Then that means…”


“Have you ever been to one of Jakalva’s parties?”

“Other than the Festival of the Lady, no. Most of the people who go to her parties are of rather higher status than I am, from what I gather.”

“When I was—“ Royat stopped. He blinked several times and swallowed a rising mass of bile. “When I was in the cage, that night I came here, I…I did things. To Kaytin. Things she didn’t want me to do.”

“Go on.”

Royat stared helplessly at the table, unable to raise his eyes to meet hers. Arjeniza splashed more tea into his mug, placed another confection on his tray. He hesitated, then snatched up the mug and gulped down the brew before he could lose his nerve. The confection carried away the hard edge of bitterness. His body flushed. “When I took Kaytin, when I forced myself on her…” The words tumbled out of him of their own accord, unstoppable, pouring into the air in front of him. “I enjoyed it. The more she fought, the more exquisite it was. It’s like…like her struggles made me like it more. And when I came…” His face flamed red.

“Ah.” Arjeniza’s eyes filled with compassion. “And you worry that means the capability to enjoy what you did is part of you, else the Blessings you took would not have brought those feelings out.”


“And if that’s true, it must make you a monster, or at least it means a monster lives within you.”


“You’re right, but not in the way you think.”

“What…” Royat gulped. “What do you mean?”

“You’re right that a monster lives within you. I think it’s quite likely the Blessings cannot create something that isn’t there. That does not mean you’re a terrible person. That capability, that monster the Blessings awoke in you, lives inside you because it lives inside of everyone. There is nobody in this or any other City who would not have behaved the way you did, felt the things you did, because there's nobody who is free of the shadow of that monster. Not you, not Kaytin, not me, not anyone. I think…I think maybe you took the wrong lesson from Jakalva’s cage.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What does it mean to be a good person? Who is good, the person incapable of doing evil, or the person who has the capacity to do evil but chooses not to? Royat, a rock is neither good nor evil, because it cannot make any choices. Morality lies in the choices we make. There is no virtue in choosing not to do that which we cannot do. The measure of who we are lies in the choices we make when we are capable of making other choices.” She looked away from him, her face sad. “We are all made of light and darkness. Everyone, including me. Would you say I am a terrible person?”


“Yet I recognized many decades ago that I also carry a monster in me, a thing that drives me to cruelty.”

Royat gaped at her. “You? Cruel?”

“Yes. I made a choice not to be that person, which is part of why I’ve given my life to service. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The same is true for you. Yes, a monster lives inside you. That doesn’t make you monstrous.”

Royat stared down for a long time, looking into the cup with its tiny droplets of violet liquid without comprehension. Finally, he said, “Thank you.” His voice sounded thin in his ears.
Do I believe what the character Arjeniza says is true? I believe it’s part of the truth, yes. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important, and what separates (I think) interesting fictional ethics from Ayn Rand’s preachiness, is that the characters believe it’s true, and behave accordingly.

You, the writer, don’t necessarily need to agree with what your characters say or do. Not every character I write has ethics I agree with or believe. A good story seeks to entertain, not preach, which is the thing Ayn Rand got catastrophically wrong, and it’s why her writing is so goddamned tedious.

Terry Pratchett was a master at this. The Discworld books are fantasy, not science fiction, but they are bitingly satirical and deeply ethical.