Guest Post: Moral Ambiguity in New Adult: We’re Not in Middle Earth Anymore

Photo credit: Goodreads
I've got a really special post for you guys today! The brilliant Sarah Harian, author of NA Sci-Fi THE WICKED WE HAVE DONE (which you may or may not remember I completely raved about), graciously agreed to write a guest post for Writability. And it's a pretty fantastic one, if I do say so myself. 

Take it away, Sarah! 

Two and a half years ago, I did a pretty crazy thing. I finished my fourth manuscript, and my first manuscript to feature a bunch of pretty awful characters. This story ended up being my debut New Adult novel, THE WICKED WE HAVE DONE.

In the book, ten criminals enter a technologically advanced prison to be judged for their crimes. Several of these characters are somewhat redeeming, or at least, I think they are. But they are killers. Some feel nothing for what they’ve done. Some still feel anger against those they’ve killed because they murdered out of revenge. Others feel guilty for the manslaughter they committed.

My narrator, Evalyn, is a rarity out of all the criminals she enters the prison with. While she was the one to pull the trigger, killing an innocent man, she was forced into it by a villain who threatens her with the life of her best friend.

But Evalyn’s guilt is misplaced. She doesn’t feel guilty about the life she took. She feels guilty that, even after she committed murder, her best friend still dies. When admitting this to another character, he tells her that she did what she had to do and not feeling guilty is okay, and Evalyn sort of believes him.

The reactions to Evalyn’s internal struggles have been very polarized. Some readers have told me that, in her shoes, they could see themselves doing the same thing and feeling the same way. Other readers think that Evalyn is a terrible person and deserves to rot in jail for an eternity.

As for me? Well, I don’t know how I feel about Evalyn’s misplaced guilt. As the author of the character, you’d think that I would, but I don’t. And that’s okay.  Evalyn is morally ambiguous. While her true feelings are on display for the reader, real people have the luxury of hiding when they feel shame, or guilt, or when they feel sorry for themselves. Evalyn doesn’t.

To me, part of being a new adult is facing the concept of moral ambiguity. That’s not to say that all twenty-somethings feel indifferently about murder, because that obviously isn’t the case. But I know that my own coming-of-age consisted of the realization that the binary of good and evil rarely exists.

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of novels about good versus evil. The distinction of good versus evil in Harry Potter is obvious even in the descriptions. At the peak of their battle over the wizarding and Muggle worlds, Dumbledore is a gentle old man, and Voldemort is an ugly monster. In The Lord of the Rings, Mount Doom is described as having “fiery depths,” depicting hell. Orcs and the Nazgul are heinous, ugly creatures. The Chronicles of Narnia brim with biblical metaphors, making it obvious for young readers to tell who is good and who is bad.  Those who are pure of heart are the ones who defeat the darkness, and all others fail.

Right and wrong and good and bad are often hammered into us at a young age. As a kid, I had a guilty conscious and was full of shame every time I did anything wrong. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I opened myself up to debating the reality of good and evil. I had to force myself to come to terms with the fact that the people I deemed good weren’t as perfect as they seemed, and those I thought were bad or evil were complex human beings who loved and dreamed and had feelings just like me. That even though I didn’t agree with their life choices, they were still people. They were a thread of humanity, and their stories shouldn’t be disregarded.

I believe that New Adult is a perfect category to explore this deconstruction of the good and evil dichotomy. Often, a person’s coming-of-age brings the disillusionment of black and white, but this doesn’t have to be a negative thing in terms of creating honest narratives. New Adult is an opportunity for readers to spend time with antiheroes and antiheroines, and come to terms with the fact that maybe a character doesn’t have to be as pure of heart as Frodo Baggins to carry the ring all of the way to Mount Doom. 

Sarah Harian grew up in the foothills of Yosemite and received her B.A. and M.F.A. from Fresno State University. When not writing, she is usually hiking some mountain or another in the Sierras, playing video games with her husband, or rough-housing with her dog.

Twitter-sized bites: 
To @sarahharian "part of being a new adult is facing the concept of moral ambiguity." What do you think? (Click to tweet)  
Writing morally ambiguous characters? @sarahharian shares her experience with THE WICKED WE HAVE DONE. (Click to tweet)


Heather said...

Moral ambiguity is becoming one of my favorite things to read/watch, actually. What I love, though, is as in the case of some characters when to them their morals are black and white and to everyone else they make no sense at all.

And, I loved the post!

Ava Jae said...

I agree—I absolutely love gray (aka morally ambiguous) characters, so this post I honestly couldn't agree with more. Interesting point about black/white morals that only make sense to the you have any examples?

Leandra said...

Asking for examples, Ava, makes me think about Boyd Crowder from Justified! =) Of which, there's an Ava on that show too. (But I think you're a much nicer one, lol) I love the title and cover of Sarah's book, this is the first I've heard of it, so thanks for that. It sounds super amazing!

Ava Jae said...

I haven't seen, Justified! But if I ever get around to it, I'll definitely keep that in mind. :)

And I love Sarah's book! And I agree the title and cover are equally awesome. If you check it out (and I hope you do!) let me know what you think!

Otto Mann said...

Very cool of you, girl. Here's my 21 blogs which you may git ideers from; I didn't acquire the wisdom: I followed the steward of my soul to see where I git my thots --- Greetings, earthling. Because I was an actual NDE on the outskirts of the Great Beyond at 15 yet wasn’t allowed in, lemme share with you what I actually know Seventh-Heaven’s gonna be like for us: meet this ultra-bombastic, ex-mortal-Upstairs for the most-extra-blatant-and-groovy, pleasure-beyond-measure, Ultra-Yummy-Reality-Addiction in the Great Beyond for a BIG-ol, kick-ass, party-hardy, eternal-warp-drive you DO NOT wanna miss the sink-your-teeth-in-the-smmmokin’-hot-deal. YES! For God, anything and everything and more! is possible!! Meet me Upstairs, miss gorgeous...

Heather said...

When I said that I was mostly thinking of Mal Reynolds from "Firefly." He does things that don't always make sense to his crew or the Alliance, but he does things that make sense to him because he knows they are right.

Ava Jae said...

Ahhhhhh okay. Yeah, I get that. Great example!

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