“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
C. S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters
This is a followup to this morning’s post on moral peril in fiction. As I said in my other post, I do believe that protagonists should do the right thing (or at least as close to right as they can, as often as they can) but I enjoy the narrative tension of asking not only, “will the hero win?” but also, “will the hero remain a hero?”
What makes a character a “good guy” is an ethos. In order to create believable moral peril–what I called “a credible threat of damnation”–that ethos has to be clear, sympathetic, breakable, and limiting. Let’s take a look at those attributes.
Clear: In order for the reader to understand that the character is tempted to violate his ethos the reader has to know what that ethos is. We don’t all agree on what is right and wrong, and what matters to the story is what the character thinks is right and wrong. It can be tough to give the reader that information in a way that feels natural, but there are ways. Starting a story with an action sequence in which the character’s personal rules of engagement come into play, for example. If we have a bank robber, say, who risks capture in order to avoid civilian casualties, then the reader is going to know that “Avoid harming innocents” is part of her code.
Sympathetic: Villains will also have an ethos, but what separates heroes from villains is the quality of the ethos. It’s going to be hard for a reader to sympathize with a protagonist whose code contains the provision “Never leave witnesses alive” and is agonizing about being unable to kill every one who saw his latest murder. (Not impossible, mind you, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle.) On the other hand, if a protagonist knows that another character is about to poison the water supply and can only be stopped with a bullet, readers are likely to relate to his questioning of his rule “Don’t shoot first.”
Breakable: In order to be at risk of violating an ethos, the character must have the ability to do so. That means not only being able to break the law, but to get away with breaking it. Having morality imposed from without allows little moral risk–someone who refrains from crime because of fear of capture can be considered prudent, but hardly virtuous. A character who has the resources to act outside of the law–whether that’s supernatural powers or vast wealth or being a member of a powerful organization–is exercising admirable restraint by choosing to act within it. A temptation to violate ones own code in a way that is not actually unlawful–running away from an attacker and leaving a comrade behind, for example–is also an example of a breakable ethos.
Limiting: The reader should understand implicitly what the character will and will not do. Like any other conflict, moral peril has to be set up in advance. Once the conflict–internal or external–begins it is too late to add any information without risking breaking the mood. Introspection is inimical to action. While no one’s moral philosophy is purely Manichean, there should be a clear line that the character is resolved not to cross. And then, of course, a clear path to her end goal should appear, just slightly on the other side of that line.
These are just my thoughts, and as always I welcome your comments.