I don't watch 'Lost,' but last night I was waiting for Life on Mars to come on, and caught the last few minutes, in which one of the characters shoots a boy of perhaps ten years old. I think this is the first time I have actually seen a child shot and killed in a dramatic series, and I find myself really disturbed by it, even though I'm not generally a 'think of the children!' type.

In the old mystery/thriller canon, one of the 'rules' is that children are off-limits as victims, or, if they must be victims, the actual killing of them should not be explicitly shown. Are those 'rules' of good taste and fair play with the reader/viewer out the window now? What do you guys think?

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Yes, there is that. The writer needs to tell the truth, even when it's uncomfortable, but there is the niggling worry that someone somewhere is going to read the episode and get a thrill from it and wonder what it would be like to do it.

Frequently, I shy away from the graphic depiction in favor of dealing with the effects. In most cases my murders happen quickly without much detail. I haven't had many examples of child sexual abuse, though I've touched on it once. The problem then was that the practice was widely accepted by society. This caused the added difficulty of having my protagonist either react too much like a Westerner or make his readers angry with him.
See, I have a very similar reaction to Clay's, and I also am disturbed about seeing/reading about graphic abuse of animals. I guess I started this thread because I'm curious about why. It's something about the level of consciousness of the victim, I think -- animals and children, in my world view at least, are innocent in a way that adult humans aren't. Maybe that says more about me and my beliefs than I should be posting in a public forum...
Yes, and they are also weaker. It is particularly despicable to torment a creature that cannot fight back or, worse, has been placed in the tormenter's care. But that is a point that needs to be made. And that raises a whole other issue: in how far writers are obligated to teach and uphold ethics.
Writers have zero obligation to teach or uphold ethics, or anything else. The last thing I want when I pick up a novel is a lecture on morality.
Well, somebody does. And I bet you know better ways of doing that than with "a lecture on morality." In fact, if you are teaching literature, you know that authors have always written about admirable and despicable human behavior.

Schools are failing in that respect, as are parents (who are no longer with their children long enough). Churches frequently have other agendas and are not, in any case, the power they used to be.

No, I did not mean non-fiction. I meant fiction. A well-told story can deal with human values. It can do this frequently far more effectively than any other presumed source of ethical teaching.

But then, clearly, life is simpler with zero obligations.
"Dealing with human values" isn't at all the same as "teaching and upholding ethics." I'm not at all interested in writing--or reading--stories that are simple morality plays about right and wrong, good versus evil. I am interested in complexity; the idea that there are no simple problems, no simple answers, no simple people.
Splitting hairs. Human values by definition deal with good vs. evil. And complexity is perfectly at home there.
It's not splitting hairs at all, I.J. You're dismissing the argument because you know you've overstated your case. "Teaching and upholding ethics" implies leading a reader to a particular set of ethical conclusions or outcomes: writing a fable, essentially, with a moral at the end. As both a writer and a reader, frankly, I'd rather have a colonoscopy. Good stories never reach obvious moral/ethical conclusions, practically by definition. It's fine to put readers in the middle of an ethical conundrum, but it's an unforgivable sin, IMO--and a crashing bore--to tell them what conclusions they're supposed to draw in the end.
Okay. This whole argument hangs on a narrow definition of "teach." Sorry, my fault. I shouldn't have used the word. We normally associate that with didactic works. And no, I don't want to write fables and neither do I write books with an agenda. I detest those myself.
So let's let it go.
I think a writer is obligated to uphold and teach ethics, or morals if you prefer, to the extent they feel like they are obligated. Your well is only as deep as you dig it.
True enough. It is a personal thing.
Lost is a special case because of its strong paranormal element. If you don't watch the show regularly, you may not know that characters don't always stay dead. The boy grows up to be a pivotal character, which suggests to me that he will be back.

However, I still reacted with shock and horror. In one of my unpublished novels I put a boy in great danger, but I don't kill him. Someone even suggested it to me, but I couldn't.


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