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.