“Life only has narrative when we frame it and edit it and call it certain things.”  

Peter Landesman

Defining narratology cannot be done in a vacuum. A narrative is a story. It’s also any report of connected events, actual or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words. Some narratives are photos or videos. Others are political answers to awkward or inconvenient situations.

“Narratology” refers to the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure. It examines how these affect our perception. While in principle the word may refer to any systematic study of narrative, in practice its usage is rather more restricted. “Narratology” is an Anglicization of the French word narratologie, coined by Tzvetan Todorov.[1]

It also addresses how the narrative structures our perception of cultural artifacts and the world. Narratology is popular in today’s political strategies. There is endless political opportunity in developing an opposing narrative to the other side’s damning facts. If the narrative is plausible, it can change the world.

And that leads me to write about its real life cousin—narrative ethics.

Narrative ethics explores the intersections between the domain of stories and storytelling and that of moral values. Narrative ethics regards moral values as an integral part of stories and storytelling because narratives themselves implicitly or explicitly ask the question, “How should one think, judge, and act—as author, narrator, character, or audience—for the greater good?”

At first blush, my instinct was to limit my blog to the author, thinking that the rest could fend for themselves. But there is more to this than just taking that first bite. There are four motives to think about in examining ethical positions taken by the main agents in any narrative—any story.  

  1. Ones taken by the characters in relation to each other and to the situations they face.
  2. Ones advanced by the narrators in the story in relation to other characters.
  3. Those of the implied author in relation to the characters, the narrators, and the implied and actual audiences.
  4. Those of actual readers and the ethical beliefs they bring to the reading experience, in response to the first three ethical positions.” [2]  

Narratology studies narrative structure. Ethics is the study of values. Both assess what is more or less important, of the “good,” of behavioral guidelines, and norms. Ethics provides frameworks and tools for recognizing and assessing available options and for differentiating between more or less morally justified pathways in any given situation. So does narratology.

This gives me a headache. As a novelist, I create characters who engage in both ethical and unethical behavior. Their on-the-page conduct invites readers to sort good, bad, and indifference based on their own ethical beliefs and standards. When I write nonfiction, I differentiate betwixt and between opposing ethical mind-sets. I try not to be an implied author. I trust my readers to agree or disagree at will. That’s their job—mine is to write ethically.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narratology


[2] http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/narrative-ethics (The Living Handbook of Narratology)