Are we facing the climax of moral stories?
The art of telling stories dates back thousands of years. People of the Stone Age left traces of their lifestyle through illustrations on the cave walls for their future generations to follow; now we leave traces of ourselves on Instagram and TikTok for future generations to look up at (or maybe despair).
Legends were spun to spread the legacy of great rulers, soldiers, and their exploits. The antique world was not stitched together by the internet, so it was not possible to attain overnight fame; word of mouth was the only means to blow the trumpet. It is through these oral stories that we came to know about the Trojan War, the beauty of Cleopatra and more fascinating lives and lands.
Who likes to listen to advice! The birth of moral stories
Advise someone out of goodwill, and either you are bound to be ridiculed or your sermon falls on deaf ears. But stories seemed to turn the same bitter moral lessons into attractive pudding.
From grandma's tales to immersive narratives told through VR, stories wield enormous influence on the human psychology. We develop a strong emotional connection with a fictional character, place or time as though they are torn off our clothes and stitched to the heart.
Civilization gradually understood this and turned stories into vehicles for moral messages. The medieval stories were told solely for the purpose of preaching morality and values.
The same advice appeared to linger in the mind of the listeners longer than when plainly stated. Teaching morality through stories was found to make a greater impact and result in better change, because stories have the power to hit the hearts and sway the minds of people; they touch people's emotions and affect their thoughts.
Many of us have been inspired from the fictional characters we read or hear about, whose behavior we try to incorporate in our own lives.
However, only a hair’s breadth differentiates morality from moralism. Morality is identifying the good from evil and reorienting our life accordingly, whereas moralism is a set of severe standards that the society adopts for everyone to follow. Moralism allows for continuous judgment of people and their actions based on these accepted standards.
A person is considered noble if he acts in a way that appeals to the rest of the society and an immoral person, as people would label, defies the moralistic norms and creates their own rules, obtaining what they desire by hook or crook. What is important is, this doesn't imply that they aren’t moral; their morals aren't the same as those of most.
As time progressed, the standards imposed by moral stories became more rigid, and people felt enslaved by the society's principles.
Many anti-heroes with super complex, multi-layered characterizations started emerging and were even celebrated at times. Look at Thanos, the Demigod who posed a major threat to the Avengers. He was not an immoral villain; he was a noble super villain who believed the universe required correction. He battled his way to bring about a balance in the human world.
To each his own
Shouldering most storylines is a chivalrous hero who is the most honorable, bravest, and has the highest values. The heroines are refined, shy and exemplary, and are modeled to please their male counterparts. These unrealistic figures were popular with the general audience and had an impact on the society.
For instance, Rama in Hinduism is considered the perfect grammar of how a man should be and Seetha is his beautiful, virtuous goddess whom women were expected to follow. And in fact, it was after Ramayana that the ‘one man for one woman’ policy started taking its course.
Contrary to this, the Enchanter, Krishna, it is said, had 16,100 wives apart from his 8 principal consorts, and yet he is perceived as the amalgamation of all deities according to the Hindu mythology.
These cases demonstrate how individuals regard moralism and morality according to their own unique circumstances.
Striking a balance
There is a lot at stake with stories. A moral is always going to win, yet it has its soft edges. Try telling a story without a moral and most likely you will witness a variety of reactions. To some it’s just a story and stories are purely meant for entertainment and shouldn't be taken seriously; but critics argue that morality is the heart of every story and that one without it isn't worth telling.
Today, with new ways of thinking evolving in the ever-changing world, storytellers have found ways to subvert the established model of storytelling.
Nowadays the greatest heroes are actually not of great virtues but of human vanities. They do not fight a mighty villain; their fights are within themselves.
Stories are beginning to be told with the common man in mind; his shades and follies are explored and his wicked and unjustifiable actions are portrayed in an attempt to help people learn more about themselves.
Looking back, we're not unfamiliar with characters that are full of flaws and whims; but they were only created to be berated, scorned, reflected upon, and learned from.
Moral lessons are a powerful tool for teaching children how to build their character and interact with others, but they're just as important for adults. The morals that we learn from stories shape who we become and how we see life. Stories teach kindness, empathy, and understanding.
Nevertheless, imposing too much morals would only make people shudder at the stories' over-the-top moralism and sentiments. It is the responsibility of every storyteller to strike a balance between what can be told in stories and to what extent so that the stories wouldn't be tagged 'cringe fest' by keyboard critics.