Ethics and Narrative

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While planning my attendance schedule for When Words Collide, a panel I’d never heard mentioned before caught my eye: Ethics. No, I can’t imagine that would catch the eye of the majority of people, but I’m quirky that way.

I have a meagre background in philosophy. I love it, don’t get me wrong, and I was fortunate enough to find an amazing professor at the U of C who I really connected with. I desperately wanted to minor in philosophy, but I couldn’t make it work while I was in school. I might try in the future.

Anyway, I have a pretty decent grasp of western philosophy and not only because it comes up in a lot of classical literature. That was the focus of this panel: western philosophical ethics applied to the hero/heroine’s journey, specifically the hero/heroine’s dilemma/moment of doubt.

Not that that’s what the panelist said, which was one of the flaws of the presentation. The other was trying to explain western ethical philosophical theory and the differences in virtue philosophy between Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Mill, and Bentham in 50 minutes. It was too much to handle in such a setting, although quite admirable. Also, she chose to use “hero” throughout because it was easier than saying hero/heroine. That just irks me.

However, before the presenter tried to explain all of those names above in single sentences, she did present some excellent story elements that rely on the protagonist’s ethical dilemma over the course of the story arc. Those are the parts I’m going to share below because I think if you pay attention to them while crafting your story, you’re going to be able to add oodles of layers to your plot.

As far as ethics go, we’re talking about a character’s principles and the consequences they know will arise in regards to going against those principles. These are ingrained in people by society from an early age, so they don’t require a ton of explication in any narrative. Most readers can recognize a Good character versus a Bad character based on their actions alone.

The protagonist’s main ethical issue should break down like this: someone else is acting unethically and the protagonist is not in a position to do anything about it. Something is causing them to be unable to act; they are helpless to correct the issue.

Then you have to ask yourself: does correcting the issue require the protagonist to be unethical in turn? Is someone being victimized? Does not acting make the character even more unethical than acting would?

This leads to the moral dilemma/question, which is separate from the ethical issue. Essentially, it’s a question of what is the cost of not acting? But it’s also not black and white. It’s the choice between two lousy options which means that some principle or value is going to be betrayed no matter what. The character has to pick the most right/least wrong option. This is seen in most dystopic fiction, high fantasy, space operas, and horror.

Remember, the ethical issue is external and plot driven. The ethical dilemma is the internal conflict your character suffers.

So what is your protagonist’s response? They need to find a way to respond to the lack of ethics while still maintaining their own ethics. They have to keep honour in a less than honourable situation. Sometimes a situation cannot be exited, a response will be forced and therefore must be found.

This is where you have to think carefully about the obstacles you’ve placed in front of your protagonist and their suitable response. The presenter made it clear that when the battle against evil comes up there must be a moment of doubt because no one –especially not a fully formed character– is going to dive head first into a battle to the death without a care for their own safety. They need a good, valid reason to suppress their survival instinct.

Of course, you play to this throughout your narrative because as the story progresses you’re showing small signs that your protagonist has the skills and moral compass to go up against evil, and that despite their doubt they’re going to do the right thing in the end and face down evil. Second guessing is believable and relatable.

In the end, your character has to have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and they need to be able to think about more people than just themselves and those closest to them. These can be murky in the beginning but the protagonist should have a strong understanding near the height of your stories climax.

I hope that was a help to you! I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned about ethics to my own stories, and not just my adventure stories. Ethical dilemmas make for great internal conflict which will help amp up any story.

And I do intend to follow up and learn more about ethics as they apply to character development and narrative. I’ll touch base on that in the future.

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