Two Dead Ends And You’ve Still Got To Choose

In a recent discussion about the Monster Hunter International series I started musing about why certain characters don’t interest me as much as others.  The phrase I came up with was “a sense of moral peril” and I want to expound on it here.

Stories are driven by uncertainty.  You keep reading to find out what is going to happen–and I think that’s true even when it’s a book that you’ve read before.  Narrative tension is caused by the plausibility of undesired outcomes, and good writing paints a picture of what could happen, even when you know that it doesn’t.

Physical peril is relatively simple to define–the characters that you identify with are in danger of death, injury, and loss of what they hold dear.  Moral peril is more complicated, it refers to the danger to a character’s sense of self–to her or his soul, if you will.

Heroic fiction tends to be Calvinist.  There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are destined to be good, the bad guys destined to be bad.  There is a risk that the good guys may fail, but if they die they die as heroes.

I prefer a more ambiguous cosmos.  The most interesting protagonists, I feel, are those who face the risk not only of failing, but of turning from good guys into bad guys. This is not to say that I want the protagonist to choose evil, any more than I want the protagonist to fail to stop the doomsday device.

I don’t want the world to end.  I want the world to be in danger and be saved.  In the same way I don’t want to protagonists to lose their souls, but I want to know that they could.  It is in the risking of something that its value is most keenly felt.

What gives a story that sense of moral peril? There are likely as many ways to lose your soul as there are to lose your life, but I think the simplest ones come down to a conflict of ends and means.  The classic conflict is when a character believes that the only way to achieve a goal that she knows is good (stopping the doomsday device) is to do something that she knows is bad (torturing a prisoner for information).

The road to Hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions.  The best protagonists, in my opinion, are those who follow the very best of intentions down that dark road only to realize–almost but not quite too late–where they are heading.

The technical issues involved in constructing a narrative based on a creditable threat of damnation are another issue entirely.  That’s another post that I will have to write another time.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Two Dead Ends And You’ve Still Got To Choose

  1. sknicholls says:

    This post was excellent, Misha. This is how my thinking goes as I am attempting to construct and execute a story, but your words to explain that process are better than I can read in any “How to Write” book.

  2. I enjoyed Monster Hunter International, and thought that the sequels were much better than the original.

    As you mentioned in your comments on Mad Genius Club, the hero was super-capable, but I think this was offset by the even more dangerous nature of his opponents. I think I’d like to see a protagonist die once in a while, so there would be more tension, but apparently readers hate any book where this happens.

    Concerning what you’ve written here, I think I would agree with you 100% if I’d only read heroic fiction from the 1950s, but today when every character in every book has to be struggling with some internal issue, it actually seems new and refreshing to have a purely heroic character. I might get bored with this type of character if repeated too much, but right now, they seem pretty rare.

    It’s kind of how I feel about cops in Hollywood movies. The first time I saw a corrupt cop, I was like “wow, that’s unexpected, a total upside-down of what I expected.” Today, if I see two cops in a movie, I ask myself if one will be corrupt, or both. A precinct full of heroic cops would seem innovative.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That’s the other side of Calvinism–those who aren’t incorruptible are irredeemable. I agree, I like to see characters who do the right thing. However, doing the right thing often comes with a cost, and I think that understanding that cost is part of being a hero. Any internal conflict will get dull if dragged out and I don’t think that the protagonist making her or his choice should be the whole of the story, just that the reader should be aware that the right choice isn’t automatic, and that things could have gone another way.

  3. Pingback: There Ain’t No Devil, That’s Just God When He’s Drunk | mishaburnett

  4. Great post! It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Throwing out those misdirections is tough; what will the character do? This is why the moral perils, like you say, are so compelling. If the world is saved but the hero loses a piece of himself…was it worth it?

    Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. That’s what makes these types of situations so compulsively readable.

  5. Pingback: Casablanca: What a Damn Near Perfect Movie Can Teach About Writing – Amatopia

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