Writing Excuses 10.41: Your Character’s Moral Pendulum

Brad Beaulieu and Jaym Gates join us from the GenCon Indy Writing Symposium to talk about good versus evil, and how your character might swing between the two. And it’s all about that swing. Moral grey areas are more interesting if we move through them. We talk about how we swing the pendulum, what difficulties we encounter, and what sorts of things we want to have happen to our reader when it moves.


Try it at home! Gradually move the moral pendulum for one of your “goodest” characters, and do so without knowing where that will lead. Discovery-write your way down the slippery slope…

The Merchant Adventurer, written and narrated by Patrick E. McLean

6 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.41: Your Character’s Moral Pendulum”

    1. Try the link again. I mis-pasted it last night, and apparently Audible’s 404 page is designed to suggest that you should be disappointed instead of refining your search.

  1. Jaym mentioned sympathizing with the bad guy. One of my favorite stories that forces you to sympathize with the villain is Wicked by Gregory McGuire. He makes the villain the protagonist, and by the end of the story, you see why the Wicked Witch is who she is.

  2. Now, imagine that our moral pendulum is actually a Foucault pendulum. The to-and-fro swings are fascinating enough, but what does the rotation mean? Could it be that the solid reality underfoot is actually rotating even as we strive for the right? Tick, tock, tick, tock… makes you wonder when the little wooden cuckoo will pop out and whistle, doesn’t it?

    And while you are waiting for the cuckoo, read the transcript! Available in the archives or at


    Now, what’s so bad about feeling good?

  3. I love C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy. Gerald Tarrant’s transition from evil to not so evil is just as interesting as the priest’s transition. It does start with little transitions. Amazing culmination at the end of the series to see how far each has come from their starting point.

  4. Interesting program and discussion. I guess a point I want to make is that moral pendulums typically rely on a given moral viewpoint, which is usually the author’s… maybe this is obvious enough to say, but I actually find moral complexities much more compelling when characters have divergent ethical frameworks.

    By this, I mean the difference between (for example) a highly consequentialist view, where the consequences of the actions are what determines moral outcome, and a more intrinsic view, where the intent of the actions, or the obligations to social ties are important. The most globally influential example of a non-consequentialist moral view is Confucian philosophy.

    As an example, and I’m recalling this offhand so I may have it wrong, Confucius was posed a moral question along these lines:

    Say you are an old man and your son has committed a crime. He comes to you and asks you to help him escape the authorities who are looking for him. What is your obligation?

    Confucius’s answer would perplex a purely consequential viewpoint. He felt that the correct moral thing to do was the help your son escape the law (because of family obligations), but then, to be moral, you had to turn yourself in because you have aiding someone’s attempt to escape the law (because of obligations to the state and emperor). The consequences are bad, you helped a criminal escape and you will be punished for something you felt forced to do because of cultural obligations: but it is still the correct decision in a Confucian view.

    I think this is where moral quandaries actually become interesting. Other examples of genuine moral conflict might be between the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies as they were taught, rather than say the cartoonish versions we tend to get in popular culture. Both the Stoic and Epicureans were trying to find a way to live a good life, but in such wildly different ways that they were never going to see eye-to-eye.

    The somewhat more simplistic ‘shades-of-grey’ depiction of characters is okay, but I suspect it is only really interesting if a reader has come to expect moral clarity, with good and evil clearly marked out. But stories full of shades-of-grey morality isn’t really morally complex.. it’s just a straightforward acknowledgement that no one is evil when looked at from the inside. In a Western tradition you can take it right back to the three part Germanic cycles where there is a hero, villain and victim, and in each part of the cycle the roles change, so that the hero becomes the villain, the villain becomes the victim and the victim becomes the hero (and so on). The switch usually happens three times making up a cycle… it’s interesting enough, but formulaic also, and although I’d like to have a go at writing a three-part cycle like that to see whether I can pull it off, I’m unsure that it is really morally complex, so much as, well, I guess just sort of morally dynamic. It allows for people to not fill the same ethical role throughout all of the story.

    Hope that makes some sense. Interesting topic.


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