Bella Forrest

True North

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I've already written a bit about the series I'm reading, Bella Forrest’s A Shade of Vampire, and the sharp moral compass of the female protagonist, Sophia. For an 18-year-old, Sophia is incredibly self-possessed and oozes integrity.  These two characteristics, along with her certainty about who she wants to be in life, inform all of her decisions.  As I was reading about her, I couldn't help but wonder if this particular trope was more fantasy than truth. Do most people –especially those who are so young—have this absolute a moral compass? When we talk about doing the right thing, don't many of us need a burning bush to show us the way?  In a landscape of infinite grey, does black and white always stand out the way we think it should?  Could it be that we know the difference between right and wrong as clearly as Sophia — but that we don't always want to acknowledge it?

As I was getting into Sophia’s head—via the multiple first person accounts that Ms. Forrest uses in her novels—I was struck by how confident Sophia was about her views of right and wrong. Sure, she had moments of doubt, but they seemed to last only seconds, not the days or weeks of angst I'm used to when faced with difficult choices or moral quagmires. Morality and virtue are tricky things, and I think most people fall into one of two camps—absolutists or relativists.  In theory, I can posit a reality in which absolute truth exists, but in the non-theoretical version, I just can't see it.  Which makes knowing the difference between right and wrong more difficult to discern. Or admit.

When I was 21-years old, I went to Israel for a year. Through an unplanned series of events, I ended up working for a private detective agency as an undercover agent. Yes, really. My job was to pose as an American volunteer on various kibbutzim (collective living communes) and discover whether the residents, mostly younger members, were using and/or distributing narcotics. It was a pretty cool job, I thought, and I was sure it was right up my alley, as I'd grown up wanting to work for the CIA. Turns out, I was well suited to the task and good at the work. But something wasn't right.  Although it took longer than it should have to realize the problem —because I didn't really want the answer.

You see, in order to do my work, I had to lie to people I came to like and respect. And a couple of times, I had to betray their trust and report on illegal—although not necessarily immoral—activities. At first, I was conflicted and confused. But finally, I was able to ask myself a question young Sophia understood well before I did: who did I want to be? Did I want to be a liar, even if it was professionally sanctioned and lying meant I was just doing my job? Did I want to turn on people with whom I'd shared meals? People who confided in me and let me into their lives (although unwittingly under false pretenses)? The answer to all of these questions was a clear "no."  But that clarity took some time to manifest.

When we allow our desired identity to dictate our behavioral choices, we can usually achieve our moral goals. If we want to be women and men of integrity, by my definition, we must strive to be honest, generous, tolerant, compassionate and kind. We don't lie, cheat or steal. We are not mean. Our word is worthy. Our commitments have weight.  We do not cheapen ourselves by approaching life as a dilettante. We are clear about our own values and we live them. But none of this is easy. And often, it's not much fun.

As I’m reading about the scrupulous Sophia, I'm watching one of my sons struggle to figure out what Sophia is so sure of. He has a girlfriend he really likes, but I don’t. I think she’s throwing off his moral compass, because, from my (admittedly biased) perspective, her actions have led my son to do some things I wish he hadn't. So I asked him the same questions I ask myself with respect to all of my relationships:  do you like who you are in relation to this person? Are you happy with the choices you're making as a result of your involvement with him or her?

These are questions we all have to answer for ourselves. Honestly. Because it's one thing if my son decides to lie to me about this girlfriend and his relationship with her; it’s another issue entirely if he's lying to himself.  All of us lie to ourselves at times, but I’ve found I’ve become more self aware with age. I was all about the rationalizations when I was younger. I find it harder to fool myself these days.

All of us want what we want when we want it. And it's a major bummer when our moral codes interfere with our perceived pursuit of happiness. But one thing I've learned since I was 21 is that the pursuit of pleasure and instant gratification is not the same thing as happiness. I don't believe we can be truly happy when we are morally bankrupt, or even just deficit spending. And our underlying unhappiness comes out in all sorts of ways—including bad moods and self-destructive behavior. Somewhere, we know right from wrong, even when we don't admit it to ourselves. Even when the bush is merely smoking.

It would be great if all of us had internal moral compasses that pointed toward True North without fail. And if we demanded that our values align with our personal Polaris at all times. And if we agreed on common values. Alas, I've not encountered these conditions on this plane of existence. Maybe in the next world. Or an alternate Universe.

For today, I'll continue to admire paranormal fantasy heroines like Sophia, and continue to strive to make the best choices I can, based on the person I want to be. And I'll try to teach my children to do the same, although I understand that exhorting my son to be more like Sophia is not a winning parental strategy, so I’ll probably restrain myself. The truth is that we all stray sometimes from the moral straight and narrow because True North is not always visible.

A Bridge Too far

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Some months ago I had the privilege of being asked to beta reader the second offering in the Bluebell Kildare series by Lilo J. Abernathy. It was a new experience for me, and one I enjoyed and hope to repeat. At the time, Lilo was primarily seeking comments on the plot progression and character development. One of the questions she asked her beta readers concerned how far she could take the actions of one of her characters before that character became too "unlikable" in the minds of her readers. It was a fascinating question--and an astute one. In contemplating the answer for Lilo, I was reminded about other books where this phenomenon occurred and how the authors handled it.

Another author who grapples explicitly with this question is Bella Forrest. Her series is not my usual fare, and is quite different in many respects from Lilo Abernathy’s series, but some of the central questions are the same. In the Shade of Vampire series, Derek, a 500-year-old vampire, struggles to contain his predatory nature and control his impulses to kill and destroy human lives for the sake of his beloved, Sophia—who is mortal. Another issue for the couple is the need to come to terms not only with his choices in the present day, but also with his past actions—the ones he cannot change, but which make Sophia cringe. Derek has done some horrible things over the course of his life--and he'd actually slept for the vast majority of his existence, so who knows how many more poor choices and dirty deeds he would have executed if he'd been awake for the whole time?

Sophia, our teenaged heroine, has a particularly well-developed moral compass for a such a young woman. She's in love with Derek, who has been nothing but wonderful to her, but she is fully aware of his darker vampire nature, and she is conflicted about all that he's done and still might do. She wonders if she's fallen for a monster. So do I. 

This is a common theme in much of paranormal fantasy. It's hard to posit a centuries-long lifespan and not include a history of misdeeds and callous choices. Life has not always been as easy as it is in twenty-first century developed countries and the arbiter of moral choices was likely different in the Middle Ages, before running water, electricity, and IPhones.  So, choices that were made when slavery was an accepted aspect of life (like, say, in Jesus' time), take on a different ethical timbre in light of the social mores and accepted practices of the era.

But what about more clearly defined moral choices?  As I'm reading A Shade of Vampire on my Kindle, I'm listening (still!) to J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series on Audible. I'm up to Lover Avenged—Rehvenge's story. Rehvenge is a drug dealing bookie pimp--not to put too fine a point on it. He routinely engages in acts of depravity. How is Ms. Ward going to reconcile that with him getting his HEA? I won't spoil it for you, but you know he does, so it's an interesting question. One thing J. R. Ward does better than anyone, though, is to get into the heads of all her characters so we can identify with the humanity there, and relate to even the most morally challenging characters. Which is how she makes it work. Lilo Abernathy does an excellent job in this arena as well, making potentially unlikable characters—or at least characters who do unlikeable things—relatable.

Another example of this phenomenon is found in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. I had trouble with this one, because the actions of one of the villains Ms. Cole transforms into a romantic hero go over the line, even for me—and I'm inclined to forgive my fantasy characters quite a lot. As the series progresses, it turns out that one of the bad guys is the long-lost love of one of the heroines. As a result of their love, he comes to see the error of his ways, but those ways were horrific. I just couldn't go there, no matter how sorry he was or how much he loved his mate. I couldn't overcome my revulsion at what he'd done. 

But that was the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, if the female protagonist can forgive the tarnished hero, so can I. Mostly because I want to believe that love heals and changes people for the better. I also want to believe that when two people are committed to making it work, it usually does.

In others, the impropriety is a bridge too far, and there is no going back. These are the waters that authors must navigate between their own convictions and attachments to the characters they create and the need to garner empathy for their creations on the part of their readers. It can be tricky. For example, a lot of readers clearly prefer female characters with little or no previous sexual experience as mates for their über alpha males (most of whom have had plenty of willing women). This is a trope that burns my butt, but I'm guessing that these tendencies reflect the majority opinion out there about the relative acceptability of multiple partners for men and women. I've written about how I feel about that here, and once again, Kresley Cole is the exception to that rule.

In the end, the question of how bad is too bad and how far is too far is in the eye of the beholder. Most of the time, most authors get it right for most readers. But there is no such thing as making everyone happy all of the time. So accomplished authors, like Lilo Abernathy, will continue to grapple with these questions while they ply their craft and shape their drafts and work to find a way to walk the line between realistic fantasy and characters who behave in a morally acceptable manner. Tough stuff, for sure.