Think about a story you remember from your time as a young child. As far back as you can, really dig deep. What do you remember about that story? Did it teach you something? Was it full of morally gray characters, who were neither right nor wrong but somewhere in between? Were there a multitude of subplots, supporting character arcs, and investigations into the implications of some applied theory of how you should live your life?
I would wager that the childhood story you thought of was, in fact, a simple one. There’s a reason that we tell children relatively simple stories. Simple stories are the easiest in which to maintain a broad sense of objectivity. There’s usually a clearly defined good side, and western storytelling usually even has a hero that embodies commonly held virtues. These might be courage, justice, honesty, or whatever the storyteller’s culture holds dear. There’s also usually a clearly defined bad side, with an antagonist who is pretty straightforward in their nefarious activities. The evil witch wants to do things because she is bad, the king’s advisor does bad things because he wants power. There’s not a lot of moral gray area.
As stories go, the stories told for children are very simple. But stories that gain more complexity make it harder and harder to maintain objectivity across the entirety of the arc. Storytellers can use this intentionally to add richness and depth to their narrative. Some of the greatest stories take advantage of this to grand effect-the best tales can gain new or different meaning with each re-telling or change in audience context. The true beauty of these stories is that an audience might actually bring new meaning to the story, beyond what the author envisioned or intended.
I had a personal experience with this when writing my first novel. I had built a world that was intentionally flawed, that had deep and systemic problems with things like human dignity, freedom, and power. My main character was a product of the system, and also my close point of view in the narrative. He took actions that he thought were justified, and I was careful to blend as much of his internal monologue as I dared to really give the reader a look into his world. Throughout the book, he became more and more introspective and less and less sure of his path. I in no way wrote him to be a saint, or even conform to the archetype of a heroic figure. I wanted that depth of experience and richness of interpretation. I sent it out to my alpha readers, as most new authors do, with a lot of consternation and more than a few expectations.
I got some phenomenal feedback. But the most poignant piece was a single sentence. “Wow, I’ve never enjoyed a story told from the point of view of the evil people before.” Evil? What? Sure, he has his faults and does a lot of things that I would personally disagree with, but the guy isn’t eight feet tall wearing a black cape and holding a laser sword. But as I re-read the parts that my reader mentioned, it hit me that yes, from the right context, nearly my whole main cast of characters did things that conformed to one or more of the definitions of “evil” that are out there. As the story and the characters became more complex, it became harder and harder to maintain an objective footing of truth in the morality of the characters.
I recently finished a fantastic book on reading literature. I’m a big fan of literal naming, and, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” is exactly as advertised. And this book has a pretty strong following- there are openly available companion sheets that will help you get the most out of it. But relevant to this discussion on complexity and objectivity, my brain connected this concept of multiple interpretations of a work to TC Foster’s discussion on symbol and meaning. We connect symbol and meaning to everything our brains take in (reference our discussion on the interpretation of facts and sociological paradigms) and Foster’s point regarding the interpretation of literature is poignant in his assertion that asserting meaning is one thing, but being able to explain why it is that way and detailing how the author does so is the key.
So how does it all fit together? Using TC Foster’s framework of explaining why and how, we can benchmark the complexity of a story, and therefore tell how objective we can be with it. Is there really only one way to logically interpret a story? It’s likely very simple, and very easy to maintain objective truth throughout. Are there many ways that you can see to explain the why and how of a story? Then objectivity becomes very difficult. When crafting a story, if we rely on objective truth to carry the narrative, we should be very careful to keep the story simple and straightforward. That doesn’t mean you need to make it boring, or even write it focused towards a younger audience. But it needs to be straightforward and easy to follow in order to support an objective truth as the main truth in the story. So write a rich and messy narrative, with ambiguous characters and lots of them. But don’t rely on objective truth to build your relationship with the audience.