Moral Arc in Literature

By Genevieve Fosa

A transcendentalist named Theodore Parker once said that the “… arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

Many people feel that it wobbles considerably on its way towards this justice. This is where the term moral arc of a story comes from. Though some stories do not have what we might first consider a just ending. Most of the stories we love do have endings that point towards justice.

Good people in those stories tend to be rewarded, and people who are destructive tend to get rewards that are fitting to their characters. However, it does not always work out this way in life, so, some stories do not follow this rule.

The moral arc in literature is seldom discussed outside a classroom. However, if you analyze any of the novels that have stirred the imaginations of more than one generation, you will find that the main character suffers a setback of one sort or another, and through that learns something meaningful about life and the relationships he has with the people around him. The moral arc within a novel could be described as the protagonist’s path to redemption.

Whatever it is that compels this person to learn, and what it is he learns, may be very different from one story to another. If you are writing a series of books based on a few main characters, the second and third books serve to increase and refine what your characters are learning. Your novel could be about a person who is looking for the best get-rich-quick scheme.

Perhaps the moral arc is not quite the right term. Some writers may be more comfortable calling it a learning arc, or the arc of events that compels your character to mature as a human being.

The question has been raised in some discussion groups as to whether every minor character should also have an arc. Obviously this depends on how minor your characters are. You may have a involved back story for each of your characters that you only refer to as you write your manuscript. The waiter at the corner restaurant, where your protagonist happens to meet the love of his life, might not need a whole arc, unless he plays a major role in the development of the relationship.

The question of what is moral behavior is not as simplistic as you may think. Are people more self-centered than they ever were? Are electronic devices forever changing the sort of human interaction that is possible to us? Some people have forgotten how to communicate with those standing in front of them. The characters in their interactive games are much more interesting than those around them. And, the zombies meant to be shot down can easily get confused with the ordinary people around you. Perhaps the big step in your protagonist’s story would be learning how to communicate with the people around him.

I am certain you will have ideas that are richer and far more nuanced than these.

Do you analyze stories to see what works and what doesn’t? What is a good example of a moral arc that you’ve read recently—or that you’ve written? Please share.

 

Genevieve Fosa is an author and an Author Level member of Authors Community.

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25 thoughts on “Moral Arc in Literature”

  1. This is an interesting blog. Good food for thought. I’m not sure I really look for moral arc when I read. Especially when it’s a book for fun, to let my mind rest. Looking forward to reading more responses.

  2. You pose two interesting questions at the end.
    Yes, I analyze stories to see what works–I analyze children’s books as I read them to an audience of one or more children. This has helped me immensely in my own writing.
    My book “Marie and Mr. Bee” (available on eBookChristian) has a moral arc that has been much appreciated by parents and teachers. A little girl works and plays happily with her forest friends, then suffers the consequences when she falls to temptation. She reaps a rich reward after learning her lesson, and a secondary character (and the source of temptation) learns the same lesson.

  3. I find a novel, or even a children’s story, very unsatisfying if the main character doesn’t grow and learn something. Even the situation/crisis driven stories should somehow reach down and find strength or courage or wisdom that he/she didn’t know was there. Conflict resolved usually highlights some kind of justice or injustice and causes all kinds of emotions to flood the reader. It’s what makes a good story great, in my opinion.

    1. Thank you, Gina, for your kind words and your insight. Stories in which the main characters learn something about life, and their places within it are far more satisfying than stories that follow a character as he simply travels from one action packed adventure to another.

      Which brings up the obtuse question; Where does Don Quixote fit in this?

      1. I like the thought of a story having a moral arch although I am afraid it is more easily said than done to do it gracefully. The series of books that have had the most impact on me are the Brodie and Brock Thorne books about the distress millions went through during World War Two and the apathy
        of those who could have prevented it from getting so bad. Books that have hidden jewels of wisdom that I discover and want to remember are precious to me. Perhaps someday I will have enough insight to write that way also so that the moral arch develops not only in the characters but also in the reader.

  4. My first thought on reading this was Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. The leads all want something, and have to figure out how to get it: the lion lacks courage, the tin man lacks a heart, the scarecrow lacks brains, and Dorothy wants to go home. This makes a moral arc easy: make the lead deficient in what you want him/her to learn. In Cortland my lead is immature and flippant, so he needs emotional maturity and gravitas. In Margaret Mead’s Gone with the Wind, Janet Leigh’s character needs an anchor, and not Clark Gable. She finds one in her home. It feels very satisfying to the reader. Well written, Ms Fosa!

    1. Great point, Alan. Although, when I was reading Gone with the Wind at 13, I couldn’t understand at all why she needed Tara so much, and why she kept pushing Rhett away.

      PS: I think you meant Vivian Leigh, correct? 😀

    2. Moral arc. What an incredible and interesting term in today’s environment. I’m all for it. In fact, I’m not sure you can find a satisfactory ending without it. But my guess is that with the influence of today, you’re going to find less and less of a moral arc in upcoming literature. Every decade influences the writing of the time. I’m now well into my golden years and never have I seen in-your-face evil as I see today. So good luck with those moral arcs, writers. We need every one we can get.

      1. Pam, I couldn’t agree more. In the past 20 or so years, I’ve seen a LOT of changes in children’s book (for the worse), in children’s cartoons, and in advertisments toward children. It’s that slow immunization and numbing to the difference between right and wrong.

        I read a book not too long ago with a burglar as the protag. It was very suspenseful and quite good writing. Caught up in the story, I was rooting for her–a thief! The whole story was full of moral delimmas. No real moral arc except as in the movie Matchstick Men living that way is Hell.

        1. In my case, my writing is also unsuited for any kind of moral arc, but for the exact opposite reason — in my writing (just as in real life in the post-9/11 world), the good guys and the bad guys are starkly defined, the lines are drawn from the very beginning, and there is no room for any kind of moral ambiguity (and therefore no room for either decline or redemption), rather it is the conflict between the good guys and bad guys itself (or, in some cases, between the protagonist(s) and the destructive forces of nature) which both creates interest and teaches the moral lesson(s) involved.

          1. Yes, I see. Like in the TV series 24. The lines are so blurred between what’s right and what’s wrong — between justice and the law that it is difficult to determine if the writers are saying the ends justify the means, or not.

            I have never believed, nor ever will belive, that the ends justify the means.

            1. What about World War 2??? Didn’t the end of stopping the Nazis justify ALL the means we used (including the carpet bombing of entire cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)???

  5. I like the term “moral arc.” It says what it means. The MC should have something to overcome whether it’s a problem of his/her own or overcoming someone else’s issue. The story would fall flat if it didn’t have this in the plot.

    My own stories all have some issue to overcome by the main character, whether it’s a self-imposed problem or brought about by someone else. I normally have both a female MC and male, and sometimes they both have an issue. Other times it’s the villain who has the issue and the MC(s) resolves the problem. But without something to “fix,” where’s the excitement to the story?

    1. Well said, Sharon. There has to be conflict and there has to be someone wanting to get from here to there with a motive that readers will understand. Otherwise, it’s just a journal of situations and events. IMHO

  6. I agree that there must be something to ‘fix.” In every novel or short story I’ve written, each of my characters have issues/problems to resolve. Some are resolved and some are not, but the moral arc to me is a character’s interaction with the ‘offering’ of resolution.

  7. The issue is not whether the arc is “moral,” but rather whether it forces the protagonist to confront and overcome obstacles meaningful enough to keep the reader engaged. In my book “Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion” the protagonist must assess the validity of an ancient document that challenges the validity of the New Testament. Some readers may challenge the morality of the arc, but thus far none of my readers has questioned the fascination of the story itself.

  8. Whenever I read any book, I always look for the moral arc, or as I prefer to say the moral point of the story. In my opinion, without a moral, the story has no point or reason for reading. At least, that’s how I feel about reading the works of other authors. If they can’t teach me something or encourage me to draw closer to God in some way, I’ll probably stop reading to move on to something more in tune with my tastes and personal goals. I write that way too. In all my books, blogs, whatever I write I try to point people to living a healthier, more pure life in the eyes of God.

  9. I’ve not heard the term “moral'” arc. It is true what you write about successful stories containing it. I think it’s about doing the right thing, and coming out ok in the end, after many trials. This mirrors life, which is why it works

  10. Love the posted comments. In historical fiction, I am writing six men hang a woman and a man to obtain their two ranches. At the trial, two witnesses disappear and two die and the murders live out their lives in wealth and freedom. This is history. The fiction characters suffer obstacles trying to set things right. I think in real life many crimes are not punished but people can learn from them and be strengthened by them to do their part to make things as right as they can. Life is not perfect, but we must strive to do our part to make it perfect. At least I hope that is what the reader will see if I finish the book.

    1. Asaph wrote a psalm asking God why the wicked prospered. Psalm 50, I think. Anyway, he bemoans the fact the wicked get away with their tricks, get fat with their plenty, and then Asaph realizes their eternal end is nothing he wants a part of. God prevails in the end. He realizes that on earth they may flourish, but they will go to Hell while he not only will be with God, but also God was holding his hand right then guiding him and counseling him. God would take him to Heaven. Asaph realized the true treasure and who it came from.

      I think what he was trying to convey is that the wicked may prosper and it might seem like they get away with their evil deeds, but in the end they will never get away with it because their just desserts will be eternal hell. Unless, as in Jeremiah 12, the wicked repent and learn the ways of the God of Israel and obey God. Then they will be forgiven.

      That is amazing! To live a life of debauchry, and at the last minute, repent and be forgiven. That’s our glorious God.

  11. To my mind, any story — any life — has a moral arc. It’s just something inside me…

    When I was 13, a classroom teacher asked each person, “Why are we on the earth?” Most answered, “to get married” or “to die”.
    I answered, “to learn.”
    The teacher didn’t know me well (couldn’t believe I had depth or perception, I suppose).
    She asked me, “Who told you that?”
    I said “No one. It’s just what I think.”
    I don’t think she believed me.
    I guess my moral arc had already begun….

    Great post, Genevieve. Thanks!

  12. The books I like to read have a moral arc where the character learns to adapt to her situation, is better for it, and the story ends happy. Decades ago, I read a historical fiction where a young woman is seduced by a much older man, and her family blames her for it. She gives birth to the man’s illegitimate child, and is blamed for that too. The baby is taken from her, but as time passes, she manages to get her life together only to have a tryst with a much younger man who turns out to be the illegitimate child she gave up. She lives the remainder of her life alone and unhappy, and then she dies. Ugh! That book still haunts me.

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