Is My Character Moral? (Rebloggable Version)
Admin Note: This post is a rebloggable copy of our page on character morality. The page is being phased out, so from now on all updates will be made on this post and not on the page.
Is your character moral? This is a very complicated question. First of all, what is “moral”?
Moral (n): focused on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom.
Okay, so moral characters are concerned with right-mindedness; they care about doing the right thing. Right? Notice that, by the definition, morality supersedes legality and customs, which are constraints imposed on people by society. These constraints may be immoral like the military draft which forces people into a situation where they may have to kill another person (killing is pretty much immoral, folks) or the common custom of the “little white lie”. And because these constraints may be immoral, a moral character may, on occasion (or all the time), ignore them.
What are the principles of moral behavior? How can you tell, basically, if a character is moral?
“If you ask anyone, ‘What is morality based on?’ these are the two factors that always come out: One is Reciprocity, and associated with it is a sense of justice and a sense of fairness, and the other one is Empathy and compassion. Human morality is more than this, but if you would remove these two pillars, there would be not much remaining, I think, and so they are absolutely essential.” - Frans de Waal
What do Reciprocity and Empathy mean?
Reciprocity (n): responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind action
Empathy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
If your character is moral, he or she will almost certainly have a sense of fairness and compassion. Both of these are considered part of the Seven High Virtues, with Empathy commonly referred to as “Love” or “Charity”, and Reciprocity most often called “Justice”. Very moral characters will, most likely, have either Love, Charity, or Justice as their peak virtue.
Moral characters are often good listeners. They care for other people, and they want to do right by them. They are willing to take action to create positive outcomes for others. They have little to no concern for themselves.
Don’t get us wrong, morality is a sliding scale. Many heroic characters are basically moral, though they may sometimes kill, lie, steal, or cheat depending on what life-threatening or otherwise difficult situation has arisen. But if you’re looking for straight-up a moral character, the most common indicator will always be cooperation.
Does your character play well with others?
Morality arises from the need for cooperation, and the understanding of cooperation as essential to human interaction. There is no need to be moral if you are, for example, the last human on Earth. Who is there to be moral with or to? Therefore, moral characters desire to interact with others in a positive way. Immoral characters don’t care about offending or harming others, so they are cool with interacting in a negative way.
Moral heroic characters are often great leaders because they are good at cooperating. Immoral heroic characters are often loners because they are awful at cooperating.
Alright, so if your character moral, they will (most likely):
- Ignore legalities or customs that they view as immoral
- Have a strong sense of justice and compassion
- Cooperate well with other characters
It is worth noting that morality is different for different people in different places at different times in history. Generally, there are universal ideas of morality instilled within us from infancy (these are cooperation, justice, compassion, a sense of “rightness” and “wrongness”, etc). Deciding what you, as a writer, think of as “moral” is fundamental in determining the morality of the character in question. We can’t tell you what moral is for you in your story or for yourself, but once you decide that, you will be able to define your character’s morality.
If you are very interested in determining the morality of your character, you can take this quiz for yourself and/or for your character to help you decide. Be warned that some of the questions may not be truly applicable to your characters (for instance, whether or not stem cell research is wrong may not be an issue in your world because there is no stem cell research), but do your best to answer for your character in those situations.
For more on morality, check out our Videos about Morality post!
Videos about Morality
In our post on character morality, we sought to answer basic questions about how to understand and convey a character’s morality. In the interest of thoroughness, here are some great video resources to learn more about morality.
- Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
- Morality by QualiaSoup
- Frans de Waal: Morality Without Religion
- Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals
- Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on Morality and Science
- Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)
- What is Morality? The Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Moral Debate 2-23-07
- Animaniacs - Wheel of Morality Compilation
- “What is Morality” by Professor Thomas Scanlon, 2013, College of Arts, University of Guelph
- Sharpton / Hitchens Debate - Can Morality Exist Without God?
- Modernity and Morality: A commentary by Fr. Barron
- ShorthandHero’s Morality Series
- BigThink: What is morality?
- BigThink: Richard Dawkins: Letting Science Inform Morality
- Introduction to Moral Philosophy Playlist by icuweb
- Nietzsche on Morality
- Kenji Yoshino: What is justice?
- Michael Walzer: What is justice?
- Re: What is justice?
- Justice with Michael Sandel
- Episode 01: “THE MORAL SIDE OF MURDER”
- Episode 02: “PUTTING A PRICE TAG ON LIFE”
- Episode 03: “FREE TO CHOOSE”
- Episode 04: “THIS LAND IS MY LAND”
- Episode 05: “HIRED GUNS”
- Episode 06: “MIND YOUR MOTIVE”
- Episode 07: “A LESSON IN LYING”
- Episode 08: “WHATS A FAIR START?”
- Episode 09: “ARGUING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION”
- Episode 10: “THE GOOD CITIZEN”
- Episode 11: “THE CLAIMS OF COMMUNITY”
- Episode 12: “DEBATING SAME-SEX MARRIAGE”
Morally ambiguous characters
I see a lot of “morally ambiguous” characters that fail hard at having any ambiguity in their morals. The author presents a villain with a sad backstory or a hero who breaks the rules as morally ambiguous, when really they’re still only a hero or a villain. There’s nothing wrong with those types of characters, but problems start when the author tries to present them as morally ambiguous.
A morally ambiguous character needs either A) both good and evil motivations or B) an enormous discrepancy between their means and their ends. Let’s check out some examples.
Miko Miyazaki from The Order of the Stick is a Paladin and truly believes in being a hero, doing good, and righting injustices. Unfortunately, she has such a strict set of morals and such harsh punishments that she seems downright evil at times. Even when presented with evidence from the gods that what she’s doing is wrong, she sticks with her stringent morals until she dies. Her means and her motivations are so far apart that though she’s technically “lawful good,” most of the Oots fandom hates her and the actual morality of her actions falls all across the scale.
Vriska Serket from Homestuck has two motivations. On one hand, she wants to save paradox space and win against evil. On the other hand, she wants to be at the center of every major event and for everybody to constantly pay attention to her. Her second motivation cause her to play a part in the creation of one of the main antagonists. You can find thousands of pages of discussion on the internet as to whether she’s a hero or a villain.
Santiago from Nanquest believes he is above good and evil and that he is free to do whatever he wants, including killing people. However, he often helps the main character and he seems overly defensive of his own philosophy. Sometimes he does truly despicable things, but many of them are simply to warn the protagonists of unspeakable danger.
All of these characters do both really, really bad things and really, really good things. They have solid motivations for doing these things, too, not just flimsy little ways for the author to add “depth” where there is none. The best way to make a morally ambiguous character is not to peg them as “heroic” or “villainous” beforehand.