Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Deepen Conflict By Forcing Your Hero To Embrace The Grey of Morality by Angela Ackerman


When we sit down to brainstorm a character, we think about possible qualities, flaws, quirks, habits, likes and dislikes that they might have. Then to dig deeper, we assemble their backstory, plotting out who influenced them, what experiences shaped them (both good and bad) and which emotional wounds pulse beneath the surface. All of these things help us gain a clearer sense of who our characters are, what motivates them, and ultimately, how they will behave in the story.

But how often do we think about a character’s morality? Especially when dealing with a hero, it’s easy to just make the assumption that he’s good and leave it at that. And for the most part, the protagonist is good--that’s why he’s the star of the show. His moral code dictates which positive traits are the most prominent (attributes like loyalty, kindness, tolerance, being honorable or honest, to name a few) and how these will in turn influence his every action and decision. 

In real life, most people want to believe they know right from wrong, and that when push comes to shove, they’ll make the correct (moral) choice. People are generally good, and unless you’re a sociopath, no one wants to go through life hurting people. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but most try to add, not take away, from their interactions and relationships.  

To feel fully fleshed, our characters should mimic real life, meaning they too have strong beliefs, and like us, think their moral code is unshakable. But while it might seem it, morality is not black and white. It exists in the mists of grey.

In the movie Prisoners, Hugh Jackman’s plays Keller, a law-abiding, respectful man and loving father. But when his daughter is abducted and police are ineffective at questioning the person he believes to be responsible, he is forced into a moral struggle. Keller needs answers, but to obtain them, he must be willing to do things he never believed himself capable of.  Finally, to gain his daughter’s freedom, he kidnaps the suspect and tortures him repeatedly. In each session, Keller battles with his own humanity, but his belief that this man knows where his daughter is outweighs his disgust for what he must do. It is not only Keller’s actions that makes the movie compelling, it is the constant moral war within the grey that glues us to the screen.

Extreme circumstances can cause morals to shift. What would it take for your “moral” hero to make an immoral choice?

Is your character deeply honest? What might push her to lie about something important?

Is your character honorable? What would force him to act dishonorably?

Is your character kind? How could life break her so that she does something maliciously hurtful?

When your hero is forced to enter the grey and question what is right and wrong...this is where delicious and compelling conflict blooms!

YOUR TURN: Have you built in situations that force the hero to evaluate his morality? If not, what can you do within the scope of your story to push him into the grey where he must wrestle with his beliefs? What event might send him to the edge of himself, of who he is, and possibly force him to step across the line dividing right and wrong?

Tools to help you understand your character better:

The Reverse Backstory Tool: Hit all the highlights on your hero’s backstory reel, including his Emotional Wound & The Lie He Believes About Himself

The Character Target Tool: Set the path of your hero’s positive traits, spiraling out from Moral based attributes

The Character Pyramid Tool: Plot your character’s flaws that stem from a Wounding Event &visualize how these flaws present as behaviors & thoughts

(& More tools HERE)

Angela Ackerman is a co-author of the bestselling resource, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as the bestselling duo, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are sourced by US universities and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-creator of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, which specializes in building innovative tools for writers that cannot be found elsewhere.

29 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thank you again, Angela!

J.L. Campbell said...

Thanks for being here, Angela. It certainly makes for more realistic fiction when our characters are faced with situations that make them question who they are the choices they make.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

What would push them to step outside their own moral code? That's an excellent exercise and the result makes for a far better story.

Crystal Collier said...

Love it. I've rarely thought in those terms, but truly, to break a character in the most horrible way, we have to know that point, right?

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks so much for having me here, everyone! It's an honor :)

Morality is an incredible thing. While it's deeply embedded in all of us, and we believe it to be unshakable and true, the reality is that when it comes to cardinal human needs like safety & security or love & belonging, morality can shift under the right circumstances. This is an uncomfortable area for people (what are we truly capable of doing?) and so making our characters "go there" really enriches a story and forces fantastic conflict!

Michelle Gregory said...

thanks. once again you've given me something to think about.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Excellent! I think adding this dimension to any hero in any story will enrich the reading experience.

Jemi Fraser said...

You always ask the best questions Angela. Now to go talk to my characters and find out what the answers are :)

Angeline Taylor said...

I love this discussion. I would add though, that what makes good protagonists great, is when they are faced with entering the grey area of what is right and wrong, and they ultimately choose what's right. Of course what one person thinks is morally right, will be morally wrong to another. I think Jane Eyre is a perfect example. In loving Mr. Rochester, and wanting to stay with him after finding out he was already married, she was pushed to the grey. But ultimately what made her great, was walking away. (It was all resolved in the end, and there is some grey in the resolution,) but when push came to shove, Jane stuck to her guns.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I love The Emotional Thesaurus. Thanks, Angela, for the interesting questions to ask my protagonists especially the lie he believes about himself.

Pat Hatt said...

Always does make it more interesting when they have to question how far they will go.

Angela Ackerman said...

Awesome--glad I provided some food for thought! :)

Jane Eyre is a great example. I actually just finished reading K.M Weiland's Annotated Jane Eyre, so the story is fresh in my mind.

And haha, Jemi! I wish it was just that simple!

Thank you Susan. So glad you find that book a help!

Julie Musil said...

Oh, wow, I haven't watched Prisoners yet. The previews made me sick with worry for the girls. I'm not sure if I'm strong enough to watch the movie!

It's strange...I'm a mellow person until someone says something or does something against my sons. Then I become a totally different person. I'd imagine it's the same for a lot of moms and dads.

I love it when a character struggles with their own morality. As you know, I did write that into my latest release :)

PK Hrezo said...

Oh such awesome tools! I'm bookmarking the page.
I havent seen Prisoners but it sounds riveting. I love those inner turmoil struggles.
The MC in my time travel series is a rule stickler but thru the course of the first book she's constantly faced with situations that have her breaking rules. This really worked for the conflict element without even trying to add conflict.

Michelle Howard said...

This is great. I also use the emotional thesaurus a lot and discover some new way to show versus tell. thank you Angela

Angela Ackerman said...

Julie, I know--it was rather ironic that you posted yesterday and discussed a bit of this too!

Prisoners was disturbing, but a great movie as far and internal and external conflict goes. As a mom...I can only imagine what I would do if someone hurt one of my kids. I think most people who watched it ended up having a very visceral reaction because of this protective instinct.

PK, sounds like you made this work quite nicely. I think our characters have to realize what we do in real life...as much as we believe in them, there are no absolutes.

Michelle, very glad the ET is helping you with emotional showing. That is definitely one of the biggest struggles we writers have!

Great discussion everyone--thanks for spending time with me today :)

Birgit said...

This is very interesting and I think we all have that in ourselves. I have a feeling that if my loved ones are in danger or if I lost my freedom and it was war, I would do what it would take to keep myself and my loved ones alive. Very interesting and thought provoking

Saumya said...

Angela, your tips and questions always make me want to open my manuscript and think about the story. Thank you so much!! And I need to watch this movie.

Becca Angela said...

I love this post, Angela. Real people struggle with this ALL the time, so our characters should, too.

I swear I had hypertension by the end of the Prisoners movie, but it's the perfect example of how to push your character's belief about right and wrong.

Angela Ackerman said...

Birgit, this is why I love seeing moral struggles...it really makes us think about how we would act in the situation, and of course this creates a great gateway for empathy to form between the hero and the reader. @Saumya, so glad this post trigger something for you. :) @Becca, one of the things I liked the most about the Prisoners movie is that it didn't end the way I expected. Lots of twists, which is another thing I love in fiction!

cleemckenzie said...

The most interesting characters are ones who are under severe pressure and who must make terrible choices. Great post to highlight the flawed characters. Thanks, Angela.

Lynda R Young said...

It's true, the conflict within characters is so compelling to read (or watch). Great post, Angela.

Christine Rains said...

Absolutely fantastic post. I love pushing my characters to the moral edge. Will they step over it or stick to their morals? The gray parts are the most juicy parts.

Lady Lilith said...

Sounds like a lot going into building a character.

SA Larsenッ said...

So, so fabulous! The morals theme is another great avenue to explore and test with our characters.

Angela Ackerman said...

Lee, you're right...this is a great way to highlight flaws. No one is morally incorruptible, if the right motivation is in place. And of course like Prisoners, even the best people can find themselves doing terrible things.

"Juicy parts" I love that!

And yes, so much work goes into building a character, Lady Lilith! It's why we need to really understand who are character is, right down to the bones, before we throw them into a story. The past always affects the present, but for us as people, and our characters. Our experiences lay the groundwork for who we become, what motivates us and ultimately, what we are willing to do to achieve a goal. This is why I so strongly encourage careful character planning and backstory building!

Thanks, SA! Glad this post made you think about your character's path in a new way!

Sleepy Bison said...

@Lady Lilith: We should all hope so! Character development is one of the most important aspects of writing a good story, if you ask me.

Jennifer Lane said...

Excellent post. The move The Prisoner was riveting. I love to explore moral dilemmas for my hero.

Kathy Collier said...

Thanks Angela. I have all of your books in hard copy and eBooks. I love the insight you have on characters emotions. You have helped me improve my writing through my characters feelings, emotions, attributes, expressions, and even the surrounding environment that help bring the scene to life. Thanks for making me more aware in my writing; for helping me to bring depth to my characters even when they enter the grey areas. I just can't thank you enough for your awesome books—a million thanks for these tools.