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.