#Writetip – Aligning Character Morality

Settling in to work again today on getting words on a page, and realized I know where my characters are now, but had no idea where I wanted them to be at the end.  So, I did a little bit of spot research.  Came up with an interesting fact or five.

Most books that are published have a “good” hero(ine) or at least a good protagonist.  I don’t mean, well written, well rounded, multi-dimensional person that we get to meet and come to know in the words.  I mean someone who does their best to see that others get to live in freedom, have the ability to make their own choices, and leave the world a better place after they have been there a while.  On the flip side of this, those same books have an “evil” antagonist – the person that seeks to belittle, tear down, or cause pain through their actions.  This can be because they want revenge or some other (socially undesirable) goal.

So, when you start writing your own stories, and making your own characters, you have to figure out from pretty early on, “how do I want my characters to act?”  It is those actions that will define your character’s moral compass.  But, does that morality have to remain the same throughout the book, series, or even saga?  Depending on how your story starts, the answer is “no.”  Often times, when a character changes their morality, the over arching hook for the entire piece is a war of “good” vs. “evil.”  Whether it is an internal war, or external.

But, when you are writing, why does the story have to be “good” vs. “evil”?

 

I have answered a couple of posts for ideas with the answer “turn things on its head.” Meaning, take something that is usually seen as “good” (such as unicorns) and write the story about them being “evil.”  I think this would be a fun read.  But, I have odd tastes, I’ll admit!  About like taking a fun-loving, carefree creature and bringing them into my universe as a gladiatorial slave.

With that said, and knowing where the entire series is going, I started looking at story hooks.  One of them – one that spans the entire series – is that there is a power vacuum at the top.  Always creates chaos in any society.  But, the society I have in my stories (so far) are chaotic already, so what difference would it make if that power vacuum were to be filled?  ::Evil grin::  I’m working on spelling that out in the books.  (Sing song voice of a little kid here) “I ain’t a-tellin, I ain’t a-tellin”

But, before I can get to the point where the vacuum is filled, I had to figure out something most books have from page one:  What is the main character’s alignment?  He’s not exactly the nicest person.  Oh, NO!  Never nice!  Heck, to close out book one, he captured the man who helped “civilize” him for his first gladiator slave!  Yeah, nice is not in his lexicon.

But, is this character evil?

According to his culture?  Nope.  He did what was expected of him.  He might even have be considered nice – the recent capture is only calling in an over due debt for someone else.

According to general perceptions?  Oh, yeah.  He’s evil, with a capital “E.”  He took a slave, and plans on making him fight… and fight… and fight..

But, what does that have to do with the power vacuum?  Many things.  (see above about refusing to give spoilers just yet)

For the series to move forward, just like anyone else faces, a question arises – how does the character “grow?”  Obviously, he’s grown into his current status quite well.  Yet, there is more to tell.  You can feel the expectant anticipation of the story for something else to happen.  If things were to stop here – with the character living as a simple slave owner/trainer, then there wouldn’t be anything else to write about.  Right?

But, there is so much more to do with this person.  So much more of the world to explore.  So, how does his alignment affect this?  It has everything to do with it.  For the sake of making things a little easier, I’m gong back to the game system morality charts I know.  (If you want a good reference, look here ) Right now, we have a protagonist with a “lawful evil” morality living in a society of “chaotic evil” alignment.  ::grins::

Oh, sure, there could be a quick resolution of morality conflicts – just shift him from “lawful” to “chaotic” (a book and a half project by itself, if paced properly), but as humans, we like to see things left in better shape than when we found them.  So, what does that mean?  For the moment, that means, am gong to be “evil” and leave you hanging, and wondering.  Because that is a spoiler for the general plot.

Back to the question though:  Why do so many stories have to be about “good” vs. “evil?”  At least when a character appears to be so deviant from a real-life socially accepted norm?  Probably, because we all like the “good guy” to win.  I admit I do too.  Because it is so rare, I also love it when the “bad” guy wins.  A great example I can come up with off the top of my head is Pitch Black and the sequel Chronicles of Riddik. Oh, I’ll grant you that Riddik isn’t nearly as nasty as he likes to think he is, but he isn’t the “good” guy either.  (In the extra features, the writers admit to wanting Riddik to be an antihero.)  Cases like this almost always leave me asking, “But what happened next?”  But, there are sadly few answers.  Maybe one day.

So, when you are writing your stories/poems/books/novels/series/what have you, do you deliberately set up your character’s morality first, or just let it develop as the narration develops?

 

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4 thoughts on “#Writetip – Aligning Character Morality

  1. I hadn’t thought about it exactly this way before. But I think I operate on the assumption that all my characters have good intentions, but the outcomes may or may not be good. I was thinking of this very explicitly in a story I am writing about a mother and daughter. The mother wants the best for her children, but that doesn’t prevent her from making bad, even selfish, decisions. I was using the mother character in Jodi Picoult’s _My Sister’s Keeper_ as a model in this respect. The books are completely different in most ways, but both mothers mean well and their daughters still suffer for it. That is my experience of most people IRL, too. Sure, there are a few obvious sociopaths and narcissists, but I can usually spot them and stay clear. Much more often people are more complex, and the dark side of their good intentions isn’t immediately obvious.

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    1. I come from a gamer’s perspective, so tend to think in terms of the alignment grid – lawful, neutral, chaotic along one axis and good, neutral, evil along the other. Most realistic characters may fall in one of the quadrants, but they’ll have strong leanings towards another (ex: chaotic good with lawful tendencies, or true neutral with good tendencies.)

      The grid is a good place to start when you’re developing a new character. Just be prepared for your new fictional friend to surprise you, and wander over into a quadrant you never expected.

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      1. It’s been so long since I played a game like that . . . and I remember when I did, having difficulty understanding the lawful/chaotic axis. What’s the basis of that axis? Psychological? Religious? Who originally made it up? The creators of the original D&D or does it go back further? It reminds me a bit of the Myers-Briggs axes (Introverson vs. Extraversion; Intuitive vs. Sensing; Feeling vs. Thinking; Judging vs. Perceiving). They make fun Facebook quizzes and are originally based in Jungian psychological theory, but nowadays they aren’t considered very scientific, or any more accurate than astrology.

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        1. The lawful/chaotic axis focuses on how well the character follows the rules and laws. 99% of the world will fall in the lawful quadrants, and the bulk will fall in the “lawful good” quadrant when you drill down a bit deeper. However, for reading purposes, the lawful good characters tend to be extremely boring. (There’s a few exceptions to the rule, as with any other character type.) Because of this, most fictional characters tend to be chaotic good (I’ll follow the rules if they benefit me or my group) with lawful tendencies or chaotic evil (I’ll follow the rules if it advances my agenda).

          The good/evil axis is the one that tends to get a bit trickier because that’s where religion, and personal morality comes into play.

          I’m not sure where the game’s moral alignment came from, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there isn’t some psychology involved back there somewhere. How the character is played out is really where a Myers-Briggs grid would be the most visible because that’s where the character interacts with others.

          Hope that makes sense…

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