“The demon I meet, the demon I shall slay. The god I meet, the god I shall slay. Therein lies the way of war.”
The above is the opening quote of a centuries old religious and philosophical mantra encapsulating a particular people’s society and way of life in my recently completed novel, A Tyrant Comes. It dominates the culture, the world, and the greater perspectives in the novel’s setting.
It also is brutally deconstructed and debated fiercely by the characters in universe as well.
One of the things that can make or break a setting is its inherent moral framework. If you have gods who represent literal manifestations of good and evil, you often box yourself in with a particular objective morality. That’s not bad. Tolkien struggled with this concerning the inherent evil of the Orcs in various letters and his personal papers. But it at times does a disservice to the complexity of moral philosophies researched, created, and debated throughout history. What I’m arguing is not an overt or implicit moral framework within a setting. What I am advocating for is the following: Fantasy settings work best when they are crafted from an amoral perspective, thus allowing the author to apply subjective judgements and moral codes in their works.
“Barbarism is the Default State of the World: The Hyborian Age”
We will start with Robert Howard’s The Hyborian Age, not Conan the Barbarian. Howard argued that barbarism, not civilization, is the default state of man. This inherent message rings true throughout all of Conan’s stories and the greater Hyborian setting. Many of the gods are vile, civilizations are decadent at best, incompetent at worst, and morality takes a backseat to survival. Despite Howard’s societies being quaint and somewhat racist from the perspective of the 21st century, his prevailing message from a worldbuilding standpoint still stands. The default framework of the Hyborian Age is amoral, and thus is able to evolve from a humanist standpoint. While the presence of gods, demons, and elephant aliens exist, it does not undermine the Hyborian Age’s amoral framework. Rather, the anti-nihilistic tone of Conan works well within the amorality of the setting. Conan (and by extension all the people of the age) chooses to embrace violence and amorality from his own culture, upbringing, and later experiences. Howard may gush about his proto-Celtic barbarian, but Conan himself lives a simple code: I am what I am. He rarely tries to justify his amorality, his vileness, or his actions. Rather, the reader and other characters pass moral judgements upon him without an overt meta-sentence passed by the author’s own personal biases. It’s not perfect, Howard indulges in certain elements that undermine the amoral framework of his setting, but it works to a certain point. Which leads us to the modern incarnation of this type of setting.
“The World Hates You: The First Law Trilogy”
Jumping ahead a good half century later and more, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law universe best exemplifies this thesis. The First Law universe is filled with madmen, twisted creatures, and the heroes are marginally better (sometimes worse) than the antagonists they face. There is a pervasive tone of every good deed or intention being crushed beneath the weight of fate or forces beyond one’s means. Characters are denied redemption, villains triumph not because of some ordained prophecy, but through sheer luck and manipulation, and the general universe is trying to kill you and everyone else. While at times so soul crushingly depressing, there are hints throughout the setting that better things await. They don’t come but later books have hinted at a reckoning for certain antagonists’ actions or plans. And this works exactly the way it should. If the universe or setting proper passes no moral judgement or punishment, it means the people, and by extension the constructed societies, create and apply moral judgements instead. Rather than the author creating a set of gods and demons who if you suck up to or worship with prayer points, you’ll get eternal heaven or hell, humans have to decide where they stand instead. And it makes settings all the more powerful. If the author attempts to leave their personal biases and preferences outside of the construction of the setting, and then applies their hypothetical moral arguments within an amoral framework, it can and makes their arguments all the greater. If there’s no one to guide people from a slice of heaven or dark underworld, it becomes an experiment you can play out on a fictional stage. Mankind is terrible and will never be forgiven, mankind is flawed but has hope, or mankind is good but stumbles from time to time, this framework allows authors to create hypothetical moral scenarios and explore them without worrying about some meta-morality telling readers “See? These people are bad! And these people are right!” It avoids straw-manning moral philosophies and allows nuanced discussion between reader and author, each who might have differing opinions on the characters, the setting, and their respective actions. Sometimes, though, this does not work.
“Everyone is Terrible and I’m Going to Die: Drakengard”
Sometimes though, this framework can blow up and lead to needless and often strange moral scenarios. Drakengard, created by Yoko Taro in 2003, unfortunately falls prey to this flaw. While the game is a decade out, the setting itself shows why this worldbuilding doesn’t always work. There are few good things in Drakengard. The hero Caim, who is like Guts from Kenta Miura’s Berserk taken to the logical extreme, engages in genocide, psychotic grins, and inadvertently brings about the end of the world in almost all endings. Even better, the supporting characters are one therapy session away from a pill overdose and possess such bleak and unlikable personalities. And it extends to the greater setting as well. Everyone is trying to kill everyone: dragons and humans, elves and dwarves, and fairies as well, they make Bayez look like Santa Claus at times. And God apparently sends his children, or whatever the Watchers are, to kill mankind because they were a mistake. This is where this framework falls apart. If everything is terrible, if the characters are so unrepentant, and the setting is actively trying to take a collective dump on everyone’s dinner, well, why should I care? Where is the heroism? Where is the hope? The sacrifices? The nobility of true friendship? The death of a setting and a story is not caring about both. And Drakengard, as much as I love it, can and does fall prey to this unfortunate flaw in this framework. Sometimes, a little goodness and a little evilness can balance what is either wise a war between equally terrible and vile people. A little light to balance the dark.
“Leave the World As It Is: Conclusion”
I personally believe that this framework works best when balanced with setup, but not falling into the trap of using it as an excuse to create a dumpster world where no one is good, and everything deserve to die. A healthy balance between a relatively objective creation, implementation of subjective moral philosophies within an in universe application, and a broad spectrum of principles reflected through a diverse cast of characters, can make this framework/method a powerful tool. It can also be an excuse to engage in rampant nihilism and everyone is terrible, let’s all die now! I personally prefer the lighter implementation of this framework. The world may try to kill you, but everyone dies and sometimes there is no answer. And that is beautiful, because the characters choose to determine their own fates, consequences considered and applied to them. And when they’re staring down someone they wronged years ago because of good intentions, they have to face the consequences. To face the judgement of your actions and not run away? That takes courage. That takes conviction.
That makes it all the more powerful and well worth following an amoral framework from conception to execution.