Apr 13, 2012

Character Morals

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?


  1. It rather depends what your story is about. If you are trying to highlight the fact that the universe doesn't reward good and punish evil, then it'd be pretty odd if you stepped in authorially to pat a nice character on the head. On the other hand, if it's for kids, then very often parents like the story to be wrapped up with a moral bow. (I'm not saying we should pander to them, mind you!)

    More generally, I guess any story that starts with the idea of "a hero", rather than simply "a lead character", is likely to moralize. But to actually have things turn out so that good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished - I'd find that odd, frankly, except in fantasy stories.

    1. I'm talking about doing things a little more subtly than rewards from the universe. I mean on a simpler level, like if a character lies to a loved one to get ahead, do you like to see them found out or get away with it? Should the lied-to character be hurt or just brush it off and forgive without question? Real consequences that make sense, that sort of thing.

      I think it's impossible to tell a story without some level of moral importance. At the very least, even if an author is trying to keep morals out of the story, the reader will interpret some moral message.

      Take, for example, Jack Bauer in 24. This is a character almost completely defined in fandom by the simply vicious things he will do to get the job done. He's forced to make some terrible choices and he succeeds. We rarely see many specific consequences of him torturing people, killing innocents or letting them die, or executing someone right then and there. Clearly that's written in a different moral framework than, say, the movie The Kingdom, which has a greater focus on developing friendships and similarities between two different cultures carrying out a joint investigation, while still dealing with similar themes of terrorism.

  2. As I've been getting reviews, I am actually seeing a problem with this. In spite of all of my villain's bad moments, there are enough redeeming ones that many readers feel sorry for his end. I did this on purpose to a certain extent, but not as strongly as some readers are reacting to it.

    You are spot on when you say there is no hard and fast rule, though. Every story is different.

    1. I think you've hit on the only situation where a particular moral interpretation could be considered undesirable, and it's only undesirable from the author's point of view. A situation like this, and I've had a few myself, makes the author think that maybe they got something wrong and didn't express themselves properly.

      I think the best way to look at this is to be happy that your characters took root in readers' minds so strongly that they felt they were a real character, and could see them beyond the simple scope of "hero" or "villain."

  3. Very interesting post. Thank you!

    I've just finished a novella and the characters surprised me with the ending. I look at the ending as moral retribution their way, but I wonder what the readers will think? I bet there will be some who agree with the end and some who won't like it at all.

    1. I love when my characters surprise me. I do sometimes worry though, that I'm not portraying them the way they seem in my head.

  4. Well, what I'm working on now could be best described as a choose your own adventure book, so I actually have to deal with this issue in a deeper level, and with a wider range of options. Sometimes, doing the face-value, good guy action leads to bad stuff happening, because it's a story about spies and betrayal. (The main thing is, the bad stuff needs to be fairly presented to the player.)

    As Dave says, heroes vs villains is Saturday Morning cartoon logic and encourages moralising, whilst having a strong sense of something to say about people, society and so on through your characters should make the moral choice/consequence more grounded.

    Heroes, to me, are defined by principle, a rigid code that they stick to despite all the nasty stuff that gets thrown in their face. That code can be a straight, goody-goody boy scout one, or more realistically, it might contain problems, like a belief in dueling for honour. A classic anti-hero might be more concerned about the end result, and do whatever they felt necessary to achieve that goal, which can lead them to some pretty villainous acts (for the greater good.) They're flexible where heroes have to be unbending.

    That's not to say that the two shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Most people have a few principles they try to stick to, and get away with whatever they can in other areas.

    The main character in my game is an antihero - a cynical, hardened liar and thief - but the player can hopefully give them moments of heroism through choices, even make them completely 'heroic' according to their own principles if they want. But saving everyone, finding out every secret, and so on requires more flexibility.

    1. Generally I use hero and villain as shorthand for protagonist and antagonist. I think it's important for an author to decide ahead of time whether they expect the reader to root for certain characters, because every reader will ask themself "is this character right or wrong?"

      I think the decision to treat one character as a hero and another as a villain is far more detailed and in-depth than cartoon right and wrong.

      In a game, presenting a player with a situation where they may need to do the "bad" thing in order to save everyone is portraying a particular moral stance, and players will read into that.

    2. I know it's shorthand, but it's still limiting to think that way. Unless you can tell an interesting story from a character's point of view, they're a pretty poor character.

      Personally, I would prefer all the characters to be well drawn, with realistic motivations. That may be someone who's confused about what the best thing to do is, and does some bad things, or it might be a psychotic or psychopathic person, who still has an internal logic to their abnormal behaviour.

      I also prefer if the consequences are logical, rather than from some strange sense of karmic retribution. The problem with that is it's very easy to do a heavy handed, moralistic tale, and that generally comes across as patronising propaganda than anything else.

      As regards my own project, it's never a case of 'you need to do the bad thing for the greater good.' That's what I'm against, making the moral call for readers. Instead, most choices have mixed outcomes, and it's for the player to interpret the moral implications of their choice. Was it a pragmatic sacrifice, or a devastating loss? Where you sincere, or was it a con all along? Is compassion a weakness to be discarded, or a virtue because of the hardship it sometimes causes you?

      I really think you're wrong on the point of 'every reader will ask whether the character right or wrong', especially in the sense that they expect this to be affirmed in some way by the author.

    3. Maybe not every reader will ask the question, but many will.

      There's a section on TV Tropes called "Unfortunate Consequences" which is worth reading. Like I've said, I don't believe there is any one way to tell a story or to handle morality in a story. It's up to each author to decide for themselves based on the kind of story they're telling and their target audience. But I think it's vital that, regardless of how an author chooses to handle a particular subject, they are aware that people may read things into their story that they did not intend, and to be prepared for that.

      It's interesting you find it limiting to think in terms of heroes and villains. I've actually found it very liberating to know I'm working with certain narrative tropes and structures. It frees me to focus on character and story, like working from a recipe book. I don't believe that deciding to have a hero and a villain rules out interesting story and compelling characters.

      When it comes down to it, I believe every reader will have one of two reactions to a character, assuming that character is well-written. They will either feel for the character, or want to see the character get some form of comeuppance. Sometimes they'll feel both at different points in the story. As a writer, I like to know ahead of time what reaction I want from my readers so that I can keep a character's behaviour and representation consistent.

  5. not strictly relevant but I saw this and though of your quest to understand the hero's journey and I figured this was one for the good guys :)

    Cowardice asks the question: is it safe?
    Expediency asks the question: is it politic?
    Vanity asks the question: is it popular?
    But conscience asks the question: is it right?
    And there comes a time when one must take a
    position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular –
    but one must take it because it is right.
    Martin Luther King

    1. That's completely relevant! Thanks for the quote. :-)