The Ethics of Characters

There is an article in the February issue of The Florida Writer, by Chrissy Jackson that caught my eye.  Ms Jackson is a member of the Florida Writers Association.  She graduated with high honours from Eckerd College in 20165, earning a behavioural science degree with a focus on non-profit leadership.

Chrissy Jackson

In the article, Ms Jackson urges authors to consider the ethics of each character.  She says: “Each character must be different from the other in a striking way. Not only in physical characteristics, but also in their moral compass which determines how they interact with others, decisions they make, and actions they take.

“Certainly, when thinking about the protagonist, ethics come into play as you craft the character. But even the antagonist takes some thinking when there are ethical choices to be made. It is important to allow enough room on both sides for growth and situational changes to impact each of them.  Just as in real life where no one is all good or all bad, so it is with your characters. No one is ethical all the time nor consistently unethical. For example, if the antagonist is a sociopath, who is manipulative and never considers the rights of others, one who sees their self-serving
behaviours as permissible, there might still be an ethical core way down deep in their personality that comes out if the situation is just right. A trigger, perhaps, that brings up a long-ago memory of something positive.

“Readers look for a twist in character development, the something that changes as the story builds and the character arc emerges, but as an author, you need to build it realistically so that ethical choices seem appropriate for each personality you develop, yet there is that little something that is unexpected. Perhaps your antagonist is one who tortures people instead of just murdering them outright. Maybe it started in their youth with puppies, rabbits and other small animals. Yet maybe it never extended to kittens because in the horrible life that passed for the youth of your antagonist, there was a lost, abandoned kitten that hid under the house and rather than seeing it as easy prey, it represented for your character something that cared about them in a way no one else ever did. That might drive his ethical choices when confronted with a person intended to be his next victim, but who is found playing with a kitten, much like he did when he escaped the adults and crawled under his house. Ethical memories may interfere with the killer’s plans, causing him to rethink his actions for a minute, and that may be just long enough for the planned victim to move out of the situation.

“Ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong, confusing overall, because rightness or wrongness can be seen so clearly and so differently by different people. While a drug-addicted mother may put her children in harm’s way through choices she makes while under the influence of heroin—and actually lose custody of them—the ethics of her situation are not lost on her when she is not high. As an author creating a rounded character, you know there is more her story than her physical cravings. You need to also weave in the love she has for her newborn, and the unconditional love that is returned.  Even small children are faced with ethical dilemmas.  Should Susie take Mary’s cookie off the lunch tray when no one is looking?  Who will know she did it?  And do not forget the judgement of the public against the protagonist. If he/she does something that turns out to be the “right” choice, the ethical decision, but does it for the wrong reason initially, is it still right? Who knows the real reason underlying the call to action? Who will tell someone else? How will it be portrayed? Does it change the public opinion about the protagonist?”

I certainly agree with Ms Jackson’s central points: that characters develop and change over the course of a story (the character arc); and that it is important to plan for and support those changes as the writing progresses.

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