Managing Moral Complexity in Characters by Colette Dartford | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Colette Dartford

Colette Dartford

Before I could even begin to tackle the tricky subject of moral complexity in fictional characters, I searched for a working definition of ‘morals.’ There were several variations on the theme, but a consensus formed around the notion that morals were principles and beliefs concerned with right and wrong. So far, so straightforward. Our parents, teachers and religious leaders, endeavour to teach us right from wrong at an early age. As we grow older, however, we realise that they often fail to live up to their own standards. This is when we begin to understand that people are complex because life is complex, or maybe it’s the other way around. In fiction, if an author is to create believable characters, they must mine the depth and breadth of their moral complexity.

In my new novel, The Mortification of Grace Wheeler, Grace has lived a quiet and conventional life – wife to Cal, a man over twenty years her senior, and mother to Josh, her doted-on only child. But when Josh leaves for university, she is faced with a lonely empty nest and the creeping realisation that she no longer loves Cal. Her mother tells her it’s a phase, it will pass, but what if it doesn’t asks Grace – what then? This profound change in her domestic circumstances stokes a gnawing dissatisfaction with her marriage and her ageing, unsympathetic husband. She looks for excuses to escape the taut atmosphere at home and takes up fly-fishing – Josh’s favourite pastime. David, her instructor, is a chilled and charming millennial, whose easy conversation underscores how stifling she finds Cal. Her blossoming friendship with David is exciting for Grace, who, at forty-five, fears her best years are behind her and dreads an emotionally arid future will Cal. I mention this for context, so that when Grace is drawn into an affair with David, she might elicit sympathy rather than scorn from readers. Yes, she breaks her marriage vows, but for twenty years she has been an exemplary wife, always prioritising her family’s needs over her own. Shouldn’t she be forgiven for wanting something just for herself?

The Mortification of Grace WheelerSex is often the catalyst for morally questionable behaviour. In my first novel, Learning To Speak American, a husband and wife mourn the death of their daughter in very different ways. Lola Drummond withdraws into herself, buried under a thick shroud of grief, while Duncan, her husband, seeks solace in anonymous sexual encounters. For a brief moment they allow him to forget about the accident that happened on his watch, and feel something other than paralysing guilt. Reviews of the book were telling, people divided between those who sympathised with Duncan’s plight and those who most emphatically did not. This, despite the fact that Duncan loves his wife deeply and longs to rebuild their relationship. With Grace, the story is a different one of course. Her child is physically absent but very much alive and well. And Grace is nothing like Duncan, who views casual sex as a coping mechanism. Grace has never had casual sex, and marital sex has always been about keeping Cal happy rather than deriving any pleasure herself. But her brief affair leads to a blissful sexual awakening and her very first orgasm, after years of thinking she wasn’t capable of such a thing. It confirms her belief that a life with Cal would be a life half-lived.

So, back to right and wrong. Is it right for Grace to subsume her needs to those of her husband? Is it wrong to want more from her future than growing old with a man she doesn’t love? Notions of self-sacrifice are noble, and yes, she broke her wedding vows, but this assumes the ‘till death us do part’ version of marriage, when in reality almost fifty percent of marriages end long before then. Perhaps ‘happy ever after’ is an aspiration only achieved by the luckiest among us. And does she not get credit for the twenty years she devoted to her family? As the person who created the fictional Grace Wheeler, I’m probably not best placed to answer these questions. What is interesting though, is that early reviews have honed in on Grace’s morally dubious choices and forgiven her.

It’s a skill to have made the flawed Grace so utterly endearing.

Grace is a character you have sympathy for even though she made a questionable / immorally bad decision in life. She is probably a woman a lot of people could relate to……

Grace could be many of us. She’s an innocent, flawed individual with a very ordinary outlook which makes it easy to empathise with her – and the situation in which she finds herself…. the way she reacts and deals with things will be very familiar… those of us of a certain age.

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter. We choose to forgive characters we like or relate to, because we can imagine ourselves in their position. But what about characters we don’t like? Cal has foibles that would not endear him to readers, but in bestowing him with some redeeming qualities, I hope he is at least relatable, if not always likeable. This is the challenge authors face every time they create a character. It helps me to think of right and wrong as being on a spectrum – saints at one end, sinners at the other. The best we can hope is to muddle through the blurred space in between, both in literature and in life.

(c) Colette Dartford

About The Mortification of Grace Wheeler:

The Mortification of Grace WheelerA stale marriage, an illicit affair. Who pays the price?

Faced with an empty nest when her only child goes to university, the flaws in Grace’s marriage are sharply exposed. Finding excuses to escape the taut atmosphere at home, she is drawn into an affair that ignites a mid-life sexual awakening.

But when her secret is discovered there is a terrible price to pay, and Grace is not the only one who pays it.

A compelling and emotional read, The Mortification of Grace Wheeler shines a spotlight on a marriage in crisis, the challenges of being a middle-aged woman, and the fear that your best years are behind you.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Colette Dartford writes contemporary fiction with compelling emotional themes. Her debut novel, Learning To Speak American, was shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and published by Bonnier Zaffre. Her second novel, An Unsuitable Marriage, was a Kindle bestseller for over 18 months.
In addition to her novels, Colette has had award winning Flash fiction, short stories and poetry, published in popular magazines and anthologies.
Her third novel, The Mortification Of Grace Wheeler, will be published in 2022.
Colette lives in Bath with her husband and a very demanding labradoodle.

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