DISCUSSION: Author's intent with characters' morality?

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DISCUSSION: Author's intent with characters' morality?

Post by Nidotamer » Thu Mar 17, 2016 4:19 pm

Yeah, this is a rather strange topic I was thinking on lately and I'm not sure if it's just my own experience in life or something that's more common. Basically, it's how the author/writer wants readers/viewers want people to see things but it doesn't turn out like that or... uh, bad description, I'll try an example.

It's like how you might get mad at one character for doing something but be fine with someone else doing the exact same. Mainly since you know the writer(s) want you to see the latter as a bad guy... but the former as either a good guy or even a hero. It's not even because the good character doing something so horrible is particularly out of character but it still seems like the writers never want you to see them as bad or even in the wrong and that they were totally justified in doing something even when they really aren't and face no comeuppance whatsoever for it. Yet it somehow isn't so bad when the 'bad' character does the same thing with no punishment. On the opposite it might be that a villain/antagonist ends up being accidentally sympathetic since they're treated like the freaking devil itself... yet nothing they've done is worse than the hero and they tend to get needlessly punished for it.

Sorry if that's a bit confusing.

Anyway the main thing I wanted to bring up were a few questions. One being, does anyone else get this feeling? Second, from a writers point of view, how would we try to make something like that clear? As in how would one go about having a character that's subtly not a very good person even though the others say they are without seeming like the intent was to play them as a straight up good guy? Lastly... should we even bother with having clear moralities? Few to no characters can be an paragon at all times. Eventually they're gonna do something bad so is there any point in trying to 'say' they're good and perfect?

Bleh sorry if that's not very well worded. I have a bit of a hard time explaining myself...
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Re: DISCUSSION: Author's intent with characters' morality?

Post by SirMustapha » Thu Mar 17, 2016 6:11 pm

Well, I understand what you mean just fine (I think). In fact, I remember reading about that on TV Tropes, but since the names of their articles are the most counter-intuitive in the Universe, I'll certainly never find it ever again. But you're far from being the only one with that concern, and I think most of us here have run into that issue at some point.

The way I see it, this issue changes a lot if your prose is in first person or on third person. In the first person case, I think the author should make an effort to show, before anything, how unreliable the narrator is. The biases and opinions of the character/narrator should be somehow clear, so the reader won't be coerced to immediately identify with and/or feel sympathy for them. I think this largely comes down to the author not having an unilateral love affair with the narrator. If the author deliberately carves a fair share of bitter realism into the character, at some point that is going to show, even if it's unconscious (at least that's what I believe).

I don't have a whole lot of experience with first person narration, though; all my "mature era" works are on third person, but a few principles apply. But here, if the narrator is omniscient, it's very easy to accidentally slip in some moral judgements of the characters in the story, and I think that's definitely a problem. In general, I just try to avoid that. If I'm trying to deliver some kind of moral message, I always prefer to deliver it through a certain character's voice, to put myself in their shoes and see how interesting are the results. As a general rule, I try to find some grey area between what I think and what the character thinks; it's the small discrepancies and quirks that really bring light into a situation. In all, it's an exercise of empathy. Letting characters expose their inner logic is a good way to bringing in some neutrality and letting the reader make up his mind, and even to let the author think a little more about things he hadn't considered before.

One thing I sometimes like to do is to throw in character traits based on my own thoughts and preferences, but with inverted polarity: i.e. taking "sympathetic" characters and making them the opposite to myself in some aspects, and taking the "unsympathetic" ones and making them somehow similar to myself. It's like throwing a (small) wrench into the well-oiled machine of moral judgement and seeing what happens. Those discrepancies always end up manifesting somehow, I think. Another more subtle, but still effective way of blurring moral judgements is to be a bit of an actor: whenever you're writing a character, regardless of his role or his position in the moral spectrum, always believe everything he thinks and says. More than that, enjoy it. When you have to be an asshole, or cruel, or just sadistic, do it with pleasure. The tendency is that, this way, the character's actions will speak for themselves a lot more clearly, and you don't need to comment on them. For me, being a writer is, in a way, an exercise in insanity, because it boils down to being the sole actor playing every role in the play, and I enjoy this.

So I don't have much in the way of practical advice, but I hope this can motivate other more concrete and helpful thoughts. :)
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