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Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader

Characters and Ethics

December 30th, 2011
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flashI recently finished Flash by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. and, although I enjoyed it, I found the ethics of the protagonist disturbing. It’s not that I expect my characters to be perfect or even “good.” I do, however, hope that they will act consistently with their core values.

The story begins with the protagonist, Jonat deVrai, having a posttraumatic stress flashback to his time in combat. The reader is told that he could have had a long-term, highly successful career in the military. He resigned his commission, however, in a public and highly controversial letter criticizing the ethics of military command decisions. This back story is provided in the first chapter of the book and sets up the reader’s expectations for the behavior of this character. Unfortunately, these expectations are not met.

The author places the protagonist in a series of increasingly problematic and dangerous quandaries, ramping up the tension nicely. I was anxious to see how Modesitt, a fabulously successful author, was going to write the solution to these dilemmas while the character worked within his ethical center. Unfortunately, the writer did not fulfill the promise that he made to the reader in the first chapter. Once this character was placed in the position of being in command of his own life, he lost all ethical grounding. He consistently made the most violent choices to solve his problems.

Here is how the character justifies his decisions:

I’m angry because . . . what I have to do is wrong. It’s just a whole lot less wrong than doing nothing. I’m angry because no one seems to even know or care, and I’m angry because I know that’s human nature. People don’t want to look at the unpleasant side of things. They don’t want to fix them if it takes much work or if it might threaten them or their safety, and that’s how and why things get so bad at times.

Here is a man who is externalizing all the blame for his actions while maintaining a victim stance. There is no self-inquiry, as should be expected of the type of character we are introduced to in chapter one. There are no attempts to use intelligence to solve the problems.  Ethics be damned; he’s going to do what ever it takes to save himself.

If this was a story about a man struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, that would be appropriate. This, however, is a story about a man who has overcome PTSD and created a successful consulting business based on understanding human nature better than the other consultants in his field. He is a smart, connected, successful, confident man who has the full resources of the local law enforcement agency on his side. He is not a fearful man. (Yes, he has the flashback component of post traumatic stress disorder, but we see no other diagnostic criteria for full-blown PTSD.) So why does he act like a fearful man? Why is his first recourse always to kill the person threatening him?

Let’s be clear, I’m not objecting to the violence or the choices the protagonist made in order to solve his dilemmas. They seemed like rational choices for another character, one less driven by ethics, given the life-threatening positions the author created. No, my beef is with the author. In the first chapter, he promised me that this character was highly ethical, and then he spent the rest of the book breaking that promise.

I believe that with a different conclusion, the character could have restored himself ethically and fulfilled the promise of the first chapter. In the end, however, the protagonist agrees to allow one of the “bad guys” to go without any punishment. Why? Because punishing her would entail revealing his own criminal conduct,  and he is not willing to be punished for his own crimes.

Modesitt is one of my father’s favorite authors. He and I discussed this book briefly over the Christmas holiday, and his only remark was “I don’t remember being bothered by this at all.” This is so far from what he would say about a real-life situation that I was shocked. It’s just entertainment to him, but it’s more than that to me. I take the craft of writing seriously.

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your opinion. If not, please weigh in on this question: Have you ever felt betrayed by an author? Please leave a comment about what you expect when an author makes a promise to you early in the book. I’d love to hear your opinion.

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  • Sue Ann Bowling says on: December 30, 2011 at 12:37 pm


    I’m going to be very curious on what you think about Tourist Trap.
    Sue Ann Bowling recently posted..Jarn’s Journal Day 614My Profile

    • Liz says on: December 31, 2011 at 9:04 am


      Sue Ann, you’re such a careful writer. I’m sure your character is going to act consistently OR that his core values will change in a process that will make sense. My TBR pile is so huge right now, you’re probably safe from my critique for a while. LOL Thanks for stopping by.
      Liz recently posted..The Galactic BarrierMy Profile

  • Liz says on: December 31, 2011 at 9:09 am


    Thanks, Elizabeth. I feel like this could have been a great story if he had written the character with different values, or if he had shown a process of the character evolving, or if the character had worked through the difficulties without compromising his values. It was really disappointing to me.

    On the other hand, I’m currently reading Passage by Connie Willis, and last night she killed the protagonist – only 2/3 of the way through the book. I couldn’t believe it! But you know what, she’s making that work in a really incredible way. I can’t put the book down, because I’m so excited as a writer to see how she is going to work this out. That woman is an amazing author!
    Liz recently posted..Characters and EthicsMy Profile

  • Annabelle says on: January 16, 2012 at 10:20 am


    I haven’t read this one but I find I have mixed feelings about Modesitt’s work. Sometimes I really enjoy his books and then sometimes I find they leave me wanting, sometimes for reasons relating to character development — his characters are often more static than I really like.

    I’m curious about this one now but I suspect I’d react the way you did and be annoyed at myself for reading it. It’s okay for characters to turn dark, but it has to make sense for them to do so and be consistent with what you know of them. If they’re not supposed to be that kind of person, that’s a problem.
    Annabelle recently posted..The Real Reason I Know So Much About The Napoleonic WarsMy Profile

    • Liz says on: January 16, 2012 at 8:24 pm


      Thanks Annabelle. I think that’s it exactly. If I had seen the character challenging his core values, changing as a result of the circumstance, coming out at the end as someone different, it would have made sense. Same guy at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, just with a trail of blood behind him. It’s the first Modesitt I’ve read. He’s my dad’s favorite author, but I don’t think I’ll read another.
      Liz recently posted..TimelinesMy Profile

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Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader