Being a hero is simple in a world of black and white. All you have to do is stand up to the bad guys and defend the weak. However, in a world made of shades of gray, it is much more difficult to know right from wrong. While I find that struggles of gray morality are much more emotionally satisfying and relevant to our daily lives, they are also incredibly difficult to write well. Too often in my experience, failed attempts come off as contrived, flat, or forced.
One of the masters of storytelling who consistently pulls it off is Nora Roberts. Though best known for her romances, I prefer the In Death series she writes under the pseudonym JD Robb. The series protagonist, Lieutenant Eve Dallas, is a murder cop in a late twenty first century version of New York City. Though the series starts off with clear-cut police procedurals, things become much more morally complicated as the story progresses.
In the course of the (as of now) 42 books, Dallas is repeatedly forced to face her assumptions on the nature of good and evil, justice, and her duty as a police detective. All the while, she does the best she can to seek justice for the murder victims and honor the badge the she treasures.
One of best examples of this was in book 39 in the series, Festive in Death. The victim, a personal trainer named Trey Ziegler, immediately comes off as a gigantic asshole. Arrogant, narcissistic, and a serial womanizer and cheat, he’s just the sort of guy for whom few tears are shed when he is found dead in his apartment. As the investigation progresses, however, he goes from asshole to despicable criminal when it comes to light that he is also a serial rapist and blackmailer.
Robb does everything in her power to make both her readers and her protagonist hate the man. In fact, several characters through the course of the book suggest by implication or overt statement that the killer did the world a favor. While many of us would give into the temptation to buy the killer a drink or let the case go cold, Dallas works hard to find justice for a despicable man.
I admire Eve Dallas because she is a paragon of justice. Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world where too many people justify immoral actions by pointing to others and saying, “But they are worse!” Stories are meant to show us examples of what we should aspire to in our own lives. Eve’s morality isn’t defined by the wickedness of the victims she stands for, nor should our actions be defined by the wrongdoing of others. In a world filled with shades of gray, being a hero is a matter of choice. It’s as true in fiction as it is in life.Tags: Sequence 08: Stories I Love