Writing Excuses 10.41: Your Character’s Moral Pendulum
Key Points: What kind of story are you telling? Is there absolute good and evil in the world? What about your characters, what are they fighting for, and where do they fall? Watching the moral pendulum move can be interesting. Also, when characters make moral compromises because of the situation, those can be fun to write. Characters who move from one end of the pendulum to the other are compelling. You nudge the moral pendulum with small compromises, use the slippery slope! Some dilemmas have both bad choices. When the moral pendulum is swinging, readers may feel frightened or uncomfortable, just like the character. When a reader finds themselves sympathizing with the antagonist, with the bad characters, they may be uncomfortable, but that’s good!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 41.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Your Character’s Moral Pendulum.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Brad] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Jaym] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And we have with us two guests here at the GenCon Writers Symposium, Brad Beaulieu and Jaym Gates. Brad? Say hello, tell us a little about yourself.
[Brad] Hi, everybody. I’m Brad Beaulieu. I am a writer largely of epic fantasy. I had a series that came out through Nightshade Books which was a… It’s called the Lays of Anuskaya. It’s a Russian-inspired epic fantasy. I also have a short story collection out. My most recent news, especially here at GenCon, is that I have a new book coming out, a new series, starting with The 12 Kings in Sharakhai. It’s coming out next month from Gollancz in the UK and Daw here in the US.
[Howard] Odds are pretty good that by the time this episode airs, people will already be able to get their hands on it.
[Howard] Jaym, tell us about yourself.
[Jaym] I am a writer, editor, and I do a lot of things that involve making people talk to each other when they don’t want to. Also known as a publicist. I was the communications director for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for some years, as well as many other clients. And I’m the editor of anthologies such as War Stories, Genius Loci, and two upcoming tie-in anthologies for RPGs found downstairs, as well as a new collaboration with Monica Valentinelli called Upside Down which is flipping tropes found in science fiction and fantasy.
[Howard] Outstanding. Well, Brad, you pitched this topic to us, which is the idea of a character’s moral pendulum. Which swings, I would assume, between black and white with gray in the middle. How do you use that metaphor as a tool? How does that work for you?
[Brad] Well, so… The reason that I brought this up in the first place was thinking about how grimdark moved on to the scene, more and more gray characters came on the scene, after having so many years, decades really, of heroic characters. There was fairly clear, sometimes extremely clear, black and white, good and evil, heroes rising up to challenge and win the day. That has changed with people like Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, George Martin, etc. So I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about how we choose that. I think it begins when you’re formulating the story itself. What kind of story is it going to be? Is there going to be absolute good and evil? I think that’s maybe one of the first choices. Then, given that, what are the characters like? Are they somewhere in between? Are they fighting for absolute good or absolute evil? So I think to begin with, it advises on it just how you’re going to formulate your story, what kind of story it’s going to be.
[Howard] Okay. Jaym, what do you think about the gray characters, the grimdark, the absolute good?
[Jaym] I am an unapologetic antihero fan. I like all the shades of gray possible. It actually made me really happy with the recent Marvel cinematic universe version of Loki because there’s a nuance there that he’s actually really this fairly bad guy who frequently does good things. It’s just fun to watch. So… I don’t like absolute good and evil. It, to me, feels as a general rule, pat and boring.
[Howard] What attracts you to the gray stuff?
[Jaym] It’s to assign absolute good or evil… I grew up in a very conservative religion, where everything was good or evil, black or white. So, for me, as I grew up and started figuring out moral codes and how the world actually works, there’s just not really any way to say, “This is good. This is bad.” There are absolute darknesses on one side and absolutely good things on the other side. But so much of life is just about the situation and the context.
[Dan] Now, what interests me the most about this metaphor of a moral pendulum, is not so much where the pendulum is at any given moment, but watching it move. I remember when I was a kid reading The Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen and there was a villain in the first book of the series who became a hero by the third book of the series. I thought that was so cool. One of my favorite things to write, on the flipside of that, is a moral compromise. When a character who is convinced that she will never do this particular thing talks herself into it because the situation is like, “Well, you know, really, because of the situation we’re in, I probably ought to do that.” What… How do the two of you handle those kinds of situations where somebody will move from one end to the other on that pendulum?
[Brad] Well, I mean, it reminds me of some of my earlier influences. When you said that, I thought of Stephen Donaldson right away, and Thomas Covenant, right, of the extremely gray character. It was probably my first introduction to sort of gray characters, gray story. Even while there was Lord Foul, right, who was very evil, we had a very gray character along the way. Also, Celia Friedman’s Cold Fire Trilogy has sort of a meeting between a priest to is clearly trying to be very good and he must team up with Gerald Tarrant, if I’m getting the name right, who’s an evil wizard and does very despicable things, but he is necessary. So good and evil have to sort of come together to create sort of this broad front going forward. I think… So for me, you’re right, it is very interesting to make characters go through that. They can start out trying to do the right thing, but if they stay that way all the time… I mean, change is sort of one of the mainstays of fiction. It’s what makes… Part of what makes reading interesting. So yeah, I think that can help advise on what characters are going to be up against. If you can formulate them in such a way that you know their likeness, you can challenge it to make them more gray.
[Dan] I agree absolutely. I think, going right back to the grandfather of the genre, Lord of the Rings. Talk to most people about who are the most compelling characters in that series. Most of the answers you’re going to get are Boromir and Gollum. Because those are the two that move from one end to the other, and often back again. That goes back to the heart of storytelling, which is conflict. Someone who is put into conflict. Now, I cut you off. You looked like you are going to have a brilliant answer to this question as well.
[Jaym] David Gemmell was one of the guys that I grew up reading. Well, I started reading while I was a teenager. He actually influenced a lot of my personal moral code, because it’s… Sometimes you find yourself in a bad situation, and you just do the best you can. But he had a lot of that. People who had kind of been shiftless or who had done pretty bad things their entire life suddenly found themselves against the wall and they had to make the decision, “Well, am I going to stand and defend and probably die or am I just going to run away?” He had characters that did both things. People who had been very good, who had been shining standards of nobility, broke and ran. Those who had never stood up for anything in their lives suddenly were like, “Well, I can do this.” So I think that that was probably where I really started getting into the concept. Then, more recently, Nora Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her god figures just swing in and out, one is good and then one is bad. It’s just constantly moving and shifting thing. I really like watching that because it means that you don’t walk into a book that’s the second or third in a series going, “Oh, I know what’s going to happen. I know what these characters are going to do.” It’s “Hum. I wonder who’s the good guy this time and how he’s going to screw things up.”
[Howard] I’d like to pause for a moment and address our book of the week. Jaym, you want to tell us about the Merchant Adventurer, I think?
[Jaym] So, one of my wonderful clients, Patrick McLean, as a book called The Merchant Adventurer. It is available on audible. It is an ordinary moneygrubbing merchant who finds himself being the hero, much against his will. Kind of like we’re discussing. So he has to go and deal with all sorts of things and find out if he’s going to be the good guy or the bad guy.
[Howard] Dan, how can our fair listeners acquire that awesome title?
[Dan] After seven years, you think I know this by now?
[Dan] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Right? Yeah! Can I get some ghosts in the audience to ooh for that?
[Dan] There we go. They… You can go to audible, you can get a free trial membership that will include a free book which could be…
[Jaym] The Merchant Adventurer.
[Dan] The Merchant Adventurer.
[Howard] Outstanding. By the way, audience… Listening audience. We’re recording live here at GenCon in front of a live audience.
[Howard] And a note for our live audience. Yes, the podcast is sponsored by audible.
[Howard] You may not have been expecting that, but you’re going to get recommendations from our guests about things to listen to.
[Howard] I want to get crunchy.
[Howard] I want to get crunchy. Our listeners are writers. How do you do this well? How do you… And I’ll get a little more specific. You want to nudge the moral pendulum into a darker shade of gray. What do you do… How do you do that well? How do you make it work?
[Jaym] The little things. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…
[Howard] No. Fine.
[Jaym] We both start talking at the same time. Not… You don’t suddenly have someone walk out who’s been good their entire life and have them kill someone. I think for a character that is… You can do that, but for a character that is swung gently into a darker shade of gray, you have them start compromising things. Say they’re a good character going dark. You have them start compromising because they’re protecting someone, because they’re in a hard situation. So maybe they’re telling a lie where they’ve always had this upstanding moral code. Maybe they have stolen because they really felt that they needed something or they were in desperate straits. You just start pushing them one after another. So these things start getting bigger and bigger, and suddenly they’re like, “Well…” You look at it and you go, “This is not the good character that I started out with.” For evil, you go the opposite ways. I’m doing something not so evil. I’m… There’s this amazing comic, Looking for Group. The prot… The antagonist, Richard, is this horrible, evil necromancer and suddenly he finds himself within a group of adventurers and he’s like, “Wait. I’m not being evil enough anymore.” That actually plays into his arc in a huge way. It’s just this slow thing that you barely see until suddenly you’re like, “Wait. He’s not horribly evil anymore. What’s happening?”
[Brad] I think too we can… This comes down to knowing the characters well enough to challenge them, right? So you do have to understand them well enough. I think one of the pitfalls that we can run into is having characters that are perhaps not good enough or not evil enough, if that’s the way that you’re going. So that they can be challenged. Maybe have to look at your characters a bit honestly and say, “I need to structure them slightly differently, change their background a little bit, so they can be challenged more.” So that they can be put in moral dilemmas more easily.
[Howard] One of my personal favorite tricks is to come up with a dilemma where both choices are bad. Both choices are bad and a choice has to be made. Because that happens to me occasionally, and I really don’t like it. Dan, in the Serial Killer series, Cleaver, John Cleaver has a list of rules. When did he start breaking them? Because he breaks some of those rules.
[Dan] Well, yeah, that… He starts to break those rules. At first, he breaks the little ones because he is enticed by something. This is what Jaym was saying about starting with the little things. There’s a serial killer in town. He knows… Part of his rules tell him not to focus on death or dead bodies, and yet someone’s leaving them all over town. He kind of wants to go check out the crime scenes, he wants to see this, and he just kind of slowly steps into it. But he doesn’t start breaking the really bad ones until he makes that decision. He’s in that moment where both decisions are bad. Should I let this thing keep killing or should I kill it first? That is a horrible sin against the rules he set for himself, but the alternative is to let people die. So he’s kind of forced into this impossible thing.
[Howard] Well, for me, one of the reasons that was powerful, and this comes back to what Jaym and Brad have been saying, was that for the series, we’ve been told that these rules are what keep John good. You establish these as things that he has to hold inviolate because that slope for him personally is very, very slippery. So the moment he started breaking them, I got very, very frightened. That leads me to my next question. We’re almost out of time, but what is the reaction that you want to induce in the reader when the moral pendulum is swinging? What do you want them to feel?
[Brad] For me, it’s discomfort. I want them to believe in that character enough so that the trouble, the decision that the character is going through, feels real. They don’t know which way they’re going to go, and they’re… They feel uncomfortable with it until things move on.
[Howard] Ladies and gentlemen, by Brad Beaulieu’s books so that you can be made uncomfortable.
[Jaym] I like kind of the frightened sort of thing, where you believe in this character, you want them to be… To continue doing the thing that they been doing for whatever reason, even if it’s… And uncomfortable, too. If it’s a bad character, I think we like to be able to say that our enemies are bad. I mean, that’s the discussion around war all the time. That person over there is bad. We’re going to go kill them because they’re horrible and there’s nothing good about them. So when you have an antagonist who’s suddenly starting to get a little bit better, you’re like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on here? I don’t want to sympathize with him.” I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head…
[Howard] These aren’t Nazi robots, these are kittens.
[Jaym] There have been several times where I find myself starting to sympathize with the antagonist and I’m like, “This is a horrible person. I don’t want to sympathize with him.” So that’s… I like the mix of those two things, where if it’s a good character, you’re frightened of them going dark. Antagonist, you’re fright… You’re uncomfortable that you’re suddenly starting to sympathize with them. Just normal person, same thing.
[Howard] All right. Brad, I believe you have a writing prompt for our listeners.
[Brad] Yeah. Based on the subject de jure, I’m going to say find your character that is the most good, the brightest, the latest to you. Put them in a situation where they are morally challenged. But do it in such a way that the scales are almost even. So you are not pre-ordaining what is going to happen. Go into it not really sure yourself which way it’s going to go, and write that out.
[Howard] Fantastic. Thank you, Jaym and Brad, for joining us. Thank you, GenCon audience.
[Howard] Fair listener, you are out of excuses. Now go write.