Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.45: World and Character Part 2: Moral Frame

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler

Let’s follow up on character biases with an exploration of moral frame. When we say someone is “morally gray” or “morally ambiguous,” what we’re really talking about is the way they fit into the moral frame defined by society. In this episode we talk about that frame, and how we can apply it, through our characters, to our worldbuilding.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Come up with a list of 4-6 “morally gray” characters from your favorite stories. Attempt to identify whether they are acting in opposition to, or in accordance with, their society/group’s moral frame.

Thing of the week: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Morally gray? Are the characters rebelling against what society says they should be doing, or are they doing what society says they should? Is it the society, or the characters, who are gray? Society gives us a moral framework. For your fictional world, it depends on your worldbuilding decisions. History, environment, government, magic system, technology, it all affects customs, social norms, accepted behavior, which then influences your character’s goals, desires, attitudes, and behavior. Pay attention to the history of your character. If your character is an anomaly, why? Just because there is a moral frame doesn’t mean everyone will interact with it the same way. Look for the things that your character believes about the opposite end of the spectrum, but is wrong about. Look at subgroups, both from within and from outside. 

[Season 16, Episode 45]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, World and Character Part 2: Moral Frame.

[Fonda] 15 minutes long.

[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] And I’m morally ambiguous.


[Dan] We are talking about… Following on the conversation last time about character bias. This time we’re talking about moral frame. Fonda, what do you mean by that?

[Fonda] So, moral frame is an element of worldbuilding that I don’t think gets talked about a lot. I want to talk about it because I have noticed that many people refer to the characters in my books as morally gray or morally ambiguous. It got to the point where I started to kind of think about it and dissect that a little bit. What I realized is that there is a difference between characters who are morally gray because they are acting against what society tells them they should be doing and there are characters who are morally gray because they are acting in accordance with what society tells them they should be doing. So I have responded often times two people saying that I have morally gray characters by saying, “No, I don’t actually have morally gray characters. I have characters who live in a morally gray society.” What I actually write is morally gray societies. This is something that I realized over my six books is that that is something I tend to gravitate towards. I mean, honestly, what society is not morally gray? We all live in a society that is full of moral ambiguity. So we have a moral framework that is given to us by our society. Whether or not each individual person adheres to that and to what extent they adhere to that is another issue, but that moral frame depends on our time and our culture and what society, what type of society we live in, and differs widely. I mean, we are seeing, right now we are seeing a global response to the pandemic in which that is… That is highlighting differences in moral frame when it comes to how much we value individual freedom versus duty to community, for example. There are times in human civilization when that moral frame has been very different. There… At one point, there have been cultures where human sacrifice was not just acceptable but was actually the morally right thing to do. So, your moral frame of your fictional world is going to be determined by the worldbuilding decisions that you make. They include things like history, the environment, like Mary Robinette mentioned a few episodes ago, the governance of that society, and also its magic system and its technology if you have those speculative elements in there. All of that has a really powerful effect on the customs, the social norms, the behaviors of people, what they accept or don’t accept. Then, that has a cascading effect on your character’s goals and desires and attitudes and behavior.

[Dan] Yeah. I ran into this when I was writing my Partials series, my YA post-apocalyptic trilogy. They… There’s a plague that destroys the world, very timely story right now that I don’t promote much in these pandemic times, but I realized quickly as I was doing this worldbuilding that I had created a situation in which the characters were faced literally with the extinction of the human race. Like, that was what they were up against. When that is the failure mode of your society, a lot of things that would be completely immoral in any other situation become, as you said, not only the right thing, but the responsible thing to do. Some of the aspects of their culture, in particular regarding reproductive rights, seem completely beyond the pale to us today, but in the society of the book, that was the right thing to do for a lot of the characters. That was the way to save the human race. So this is, I think, a really important part of worldbuilding.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s… I think one of the other things for me when you’re talking about these morally gray worlds is to understand that none of them exists… We keep talking about this. None of them exists in a vacuum. But this also includes a time continuum. So one of the things that your characters are going to be doing is pushing every… Historically speaking, every society thinks that they are more enlightened than the society before them. There are very few exceptions where this doesn’t happen. When it does happen, it’s the “Oh, in the golden times.” What you’re remembering is generally your childhood. When you didn’t have power and when things went well for you because people were doing things for you. So this is part of why we get these 20 year cycles in society. That there is this push and pull between resistance to authority figures and wanting to have authority for yourself. So when you’ve got these characters in your trying to figure out kind of where those moral gray areas are, you also want to think about what society… What their parents society looked like. Like, what are they rebelling against, and what did society look like when they were children? Like, what are they… What is their ideal of things were comfortable then? If… Assuming they came from a comfortable childhood.

[Fonda] Yeah. I think one thing to think about is if your character is an anomaly in some way. Why is that the case? If they’re acting against the norms or the expected behavior, then why them? Why now? What are the logical consequences of them doing that? To create, like, a very simple example, let’s say you have a fantasy story in which only the boys are trained to be dragonriders. You have a character who is going to be the first female dragonrider. You can’t just have a story in which true grit and perseverance and pluck, she becomes the first female dragonrider, everyone claps and cheers, curtains come down, exit. Because if just through hard work and grit and pluck, a woman could become a dragonrider, then someone else before her would have already done it. So what is it about this time or her circumstances or changing society or something going on in the world… Is there something that is happening that is making her become the first female dragonrider, and what are the consequences of that on her and her community? So, I think, if when you ignore culture and environment and moral frame, that’s where you potentially get stories that feel like modern era 21st-century people dressed up and dropped into the trappings of a fantasy world.

[Dan] Let’s pause here for our book of the week, which, Fonda, I believe comes from you this time.

[Fonda] Yeah. So, my book of the week is The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. The reason why I want to make this my pick is that it is… It is not an easy read, it’s a pretty harrowing read actually, so be prepared. Have some tissues with you. It is a great example, though, of a book in which the character is existing under fighting and trying to change a world that is governed by a very strict, very homophobic moral frame. So it is… The world itself is uncomfortable to live in, but is a great example of how the author uses this moral frame to advance the journey of the character.

[Dan] Cool. That is The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson.

[Dan] All right. So, talking about characters who are anomalies within their culture, I think brings us to a question about characters who all think alike or characters who don’t think alike. If we need to be careful of anomalies, does that mean that everyone’s going to end up with the same kind of perspective and the same moral frame?

[Fonda] Yeah. No, that’s a trap that I think people fall into sometimes and use to excuse things. Like, so if they… You end up with situations where, well, every… That’s just how it was back then. Everyone was sexist. That’s used to justify a world that is portrayed as being unremittingly sexist. But that’s… That is not an excuse, because in any given society at any given time, people are interacting with the moral frame in different ways. They are either embracing it, they’re reinforcing it or upholding it, they’re opposing it, they’re questioning it, they’re trying to change it. We see that very clearly in our own world. That we… We have many different types of people, factions of people who are trying to push and pull at this moral frame in different ways. We are in constant conversation within society’s moral frame. That would be the same in your fictional society as well. So, you are choosing to tell that story and to show the relationship that your characters are having in a moral frame. It is actually lazy and boring to have all your characters interacting with the moral frame in the same way.

[Mary Robinette] I got to take a class by Donald [Moss?] in which he was talking about the dichotomies of society and that there’s… That we tend to, when we go into fiction, think of these polar extremes, that either someone is the super sports fan or someone hates all sports. And that most people actually exist somewhere along a spectrum. So there might be someone, like, who enjoys a particular sport, but not all sports. Or, there’s someone who’s a fan of this team, but is okay with not seeing anything else. Or there might be someone who’s like has all of the televisions in their house tuned to different sports game happenings simultaneously. And that it’s… If you start thinking about these, then you can use the polar extremes as a kind of mechanism to find where those gray areas are. It doesn’t have to be about sports, obviously. But it’s an interesting thing. One of the things that he says that is a good thinking tool for this is like what is the thing that they are absolutely wrong about the other end of that spectrum? So, like, the person who doesn’t watch sports at all saying, “Well, sports don’t have any drama or narrative at all.” Without understanding that there is a narrative that is brought to it. They’re wrong about that. So, like, looking for the thing that your character fundamentally believes. I think Dan calls this the lie that your character believes. But about a big societal position can give you some interesting ground to play in.

[Howard] A very useful real-world principle here, and it’s one that most folks aren’t familiar with because the establishment doesn’t want us familiar with it, it’s called jury nullification. It is the idea that when you are a juror, even if the case is super clear, yep, the defendant is absolutely guilty of… I’m going to make something up… Using potions after 9 PM. Okay? They’re absolutely guilty of that. And the punishment is something horrible. But, if the jury feels like, wow, that’s a terrible law. Who picked 9 PM? Who picked potions? I sometimes drink potions after 9 PM. The jury can say, “Not guilty.” The jury, in legal terms, is allowed to be wrong, but their decision is final. This idea of jury nullification is built into our system and it is a method whereby a group of 12 people can decide that they don’t like the law or they don’t think the defendant should be acquitted or they’ve all taken bribes and now we really are in a terribly morally ambiguous… That’s actually not ambiguous, that’s just really dark brown. But the principle of jury nullification will never be explained to a jury in a courtroom because none of the attorneys nor the judge nor the defendant even… Nobody wants the jurors to know that the truth is we don’t actually have to listen to you, we can just sit here and twiddle our thumbs, and at the end, we can decide something.

[Dan] It occurs to me, as we’re talking about this moral framework, that it is a really good way of talking about subgroups within a society as well. My own religion is the one that leaps to mind. I’m Mormon. Most people, I suspect, have a fairly solid stereotype in their minds of what a Mormon is like. Whereas for me, living inside that subgroup, there are countless… There are thousands of different ways to be Mormon. I am very, very different in a lot of ways from my neighbors, while also being very similar in maybe more visible ways which is what the outside rest of society when they look at us.

[Fonda] Yeah. This is a… That’s something you can really do in your fiction is to break down the idea of there being a homogenous group. Right? You see this in something like Star Trek, for example, right? The original series has all Klingons are warlike. There’s just no nuance to the Klingons. They’re all a type. They’re all warlike, they’re all just about dying in battle. Then, in future seasons of Star Trek, you start to break that down, you actually see Klingons as individuals, and they are not all… They have a moral frame that is around more and being warlike and honor, but within that soc… That moral… That Klingons society which does have an overarching moral frame, there is many different personalities and they are different on their spectrum of how much they adhere to that moral frame or not, and they’re in conversation with it. So keep that in mind as well, when you’re thinking about moral frame and how your characters interact with it. I think that a useful thing to do when you’re thinking about morally gray characters is I like the contrast someone like Walter White in Breaking Bad. Right? Who is… He is morally gray because he is… He’s breaking the law of our society. Like, clearly running a meth lab is illegal, and we can all agree on that, because we’re all sharing a certain moral frame with that, Walter White is acting in opposition to. Another one of my favorite shows is the miniseries, Rome. In that show, the main characters kill and crucify I do all sorts of horrible things, but they are doing it in accordance to their moral frame. Because they’re soldiers and generals and leaders in ancient Rome. So they are, from our perspective, 21st-century viewers, acting immorally, but they are actually acting morally within their own society.

[Fonda] So that actually leads me to the homework, which is what I want listeners to do this week. Take maybe about a handful, 4 to 6 characters, in stories that you enjoy, that you would consider morally gray. See if you can identify if they are acting in opposition to or in accordance to what their society or group would be saying is allowed or not allowed.

[Dan] Fantastic. There’s your homework. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.