Today I'm asking a tricky question. How strong should a protagonist's morals be?
The best stories show the hero forced to make hard decisions that challenge their existing world view. A detective has to work within the law and let a killer live despite the lives he's taken. A farmboy has to find the courage to oppose the empire that has killed his family.
Sometimes the hero's journey presents them with tempting chances to get revenge. Sometimes it makes sticking to a moral code difficult. If a character has sworn to never kill, are there any circumstances under which it's okay to break that oath? Is it forgiveable for a married man to sleep with another woman? What if his wife was unfaithful first? Is it permissible to sacrifice a million lives to save a billion, or should the hero try to find another way? These are the questions that can create defining moments in a story.
But here's the thing, should the hero be rewarded/punished for making certain choices? Authors have the power to enforce karma, should they wish. I like to see villainous characters get their comeuppance, and I like to see heroes receive some measure of a reward in the end. Something to show that their suffering was worthwhile. If a hero has achieved success through purely noble means, then we usually have no trouble accepting that they deserve their reward. But what if they let an innocent person die when they could have saved them? Do they still deserve it then? What if the villain has one redeeming moment, one good act in the end? Are they then forgiven for all they've done in the past?
There is, perhaps, no one definitive answer. Nor should there be. Perhaps if that innocent person had been saved, more people would have died. Perhaps the hero just wanted to achieve their goal and considered the innocent an acceptable loss. Maybe the villain has been fighting for redemption for years, or that heroic act was just a ploy to garner sympathy. Each story will be different.
I'm a fan of those moments where the hero is faced with an impossible choice and manages to find a third option that both preserves their moral code and achieves their goal. Nothing says "hero" to me like a character seeing through the chaos and knee-jerk responses to work out a solution that neither their allies nor their enemies predicted.
But for those moments to have meaning, sometimes the hero has to make the tough choice. And sometimes, I feel, that choice should be wrong. It shows that the hero can make mistakes and makes their eventual victory more satisfying. But in cases where the choice was the wrong one, I think the hero should be made to answer fot it, and either find a way to make amends, or suffer the consequences.
What about you? Are there times when you've wished a hero would suffer consequences for a choice you disagreed with?