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


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.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

4 thoughts on “16.45: World and Character Part 2: Moral Frame”

  1. Awesome tips on one of my favorite topics. I love the freedom writing gives us, to imagine, depict, and explore societies with different moral frameworks from our own.

    How do you deal with the fear of being judged or condemned for stepping outside of society’s moral code within a story? How do you write honestly, without the reader assuming you are advocating for the moral framework you depict in story to be imposed on the real world?

    Someone mentioned post apocalyptic changes in reproductive freedom: how do you avoid the reader assuming you want to make those changes in our world? Or is the price of honest depiction the possibility that the reader might misread this as an author manifesto?

  2. This week, the four worldbuilders, Dan, Fonda, Mary Robinette, and Howard, talked about the moral frame for your world and characters. How does the moral framework of your society interact with the characters? What are the golden times? Why is your character an anomaly? Dragonriders? Sports fans? Jury nullification? Klingons? Breaking Bad? Read all about it in the transcript available now in the archives.

  3. Really interesting episode!
    The phrase your story doesn’t exist in a vacuum also means your story exists in our world and its moral frame relates to reality. There are many scifi books and television shows that just so happen to create a world where reproductive rights need to be suspended for reasons or we need to “return” to traditional gender roles for reasons (never mind that traditional feminine skills like cooking, gathering, childcare and nursing would be useful after the apocalypse or that those gender roles were never static). It often comes across as conservatism rather than imagination, using the imaginary world to strong arm readers into agreeing with their real world beliefs. Other times the real world impact is unintentional but still harmful (For example Jewish/indigenous/Romani coded people forgiving the aliens that committed genocide against them.) Books exist in the real world and are read by real people.

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