On Writing: Moral Foundations

Writing is best when you write about something that matters to you. It could be current events; today’s politics have plenty of fodder for snark and soapboxing. It could be the history of the first importation of peaches to England from China. It could be a grand and epic fantasy of a Chosen One out to save the universe… or at least one small, quiet corner of the Shire.

Whatever your story, give it stable foundations. Facts, history… and morals.

This is where it gets tricky. We all know not all cultures share the same basic code of ethics; that’s part of what can make a fantastic world interesting, considering what an elf or alien or just a human from the other side of the continent might find right or wrong that the viewpoint character wouldn’t. The tricky part comes in when you consider not all readers have the same moral foundations. Not even all readers from the same culture.

Consider the five moral foundations proposed by Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham. Two individualizing foundations: care and fairness. Three binding (or group-forming) foundations: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Yes, I know these have been used in various political ways to hammer people over the head. Try to put that aside and just consider their use for building stories on, because stories have to feel real, like the world could work, and all of these are necessary for working societies.

Which of these have you seen in Hollywood lately?

I know what I haven’t seen, and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t been in a movie theater since Pacific Rim. Hollywood seems to have dove into “everything for the individual!” and never come back up.

Which is… honestly, exhausting as a reader or viewer. For several reasons, but I’m going to stick to foreshadowing and contrast.

Both of these require a predictable baseline of what you expect to see in society and how you expect people to react. Take the example of Gunsmoke (TV series, 1955-1975). If a U.S. Marshal is wearing a gun in the Old West, you can predict sooner or later he’ll have to use it. This foreshadowing gives the brain the mental candy of anticipation. “Now? No, not now… ooo, this looks promising….” Likewise, if everyone’s always yelling insults at each other, more yelling does not stand out. However if the social baseline is polite civility, as it generally is in 1880s Dodge, then when someone pulls a Precision F-Strike, it stands out, and you realize the situation is truly extreme. More brain-candy.

Neither of these work if you don’t have that baseline. And that baseline requires loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Loyalty – the marshal must respect the society he belongs to, enough to enforce its laws even at risk to life and limb, and in the face of a mob with all emotions are running high. Authority – the marshal is given the power by society to enforce laws, and must be respected so long as he is upholding the law. Sanctity – in a sane society life is precious, and the gun is only drawn to enforce the law because to do otherwise is to condemn people to live in lawlessness. Which means the strong get what they want and everyone else suffers.

Without these restraints, Marshal Dillon would be just another wandering gunman; like the guys he warns to stay civil in town, sometimes chases out of town, and sometimes shoots dead. He would be a flat, shallow character. Boring. And exhausting, because as a viewer you want to sympathize with a character, and it’s work to try to do that with a character who has no connections to the rest of a group.

Consider your story’s foundations. Building a plot just based on individual motivations is like building a house on sand; it could blow away in any wind. How does your character belong to a larger society? Because no matter how rugged an individual you are, and how disinterested in society you may be, society is interested in you. For better or worse.

And that, makes a story.

20 thoughts on “On Writing: Moral Foundations

  1. And if your character has different ideas than his neighbors about this stuff, there is conflict, internally and externally. Or if he has the same ideas with very different expressions.or situations.

    I mean, what if you were an Amish vampire? You could feed from cows or horses, no problem, but you would probably have the same religious and social views as your neighbors while having a very different condition, longevity, work hours, etc. What if nobody else knew? Or what if everybody else found out very early? What if you had Amish gang problems? What if you moved to South America on a jungle farm Amish settlement?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And if your character has different ideas than his neighbors about this stuff, there is conflict, internally and externally. Or if he has the same ideas with very different expressions.or situations.

      And external conflict can raise stress levels so much that something that was Fine, Whatever up to that point is…. no longer OK. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. But other people have feelings, or even worse, thoughts!
    The protagonist is pure, without any pesky thoughts anywhere near their them, much less influencing their actions.

    How can you burden them with having to think about other people when they just want to wander around swinging their huge, not-at-all-compensating sword?

    Who asked that little old lady to stand with her head in the path of the sword?
    She probably had it coming anyway!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I will point out on that “not everyone shares the same moral/ethical views” that Lewis was right in “Mere Christianity” about the ability to derive a “_mere_ X” for some things even in the face of surface differences. For an example I’ve brought up before, having lived in other cultures: from the english side it’s considered rude to be late, while from the spanish side it’s considered rude to be on time/early… but at the root, the “mere” form of both is actually the same, it’s about respecting the other people involved. In the english view, it’s rude to be late “because that’s claiming your time is more important than theirs”. In the spanish view, it’s rude to be early “because things inevitably go wrong at the last minute, and you may embarrass them by catching them unready.” So, even when stuff looks like it’s the opposite on the surface, digging deeper frequently finds a lot more similarity in the “mere” morals and ethics. (tho this doesn’t counter the rest of your argument, just makes it stronger)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. The underlying principles are the same, though the expression is different. What’s that saying about Americans and British, two peoples separated by a common language?

      Kind of like love languages, really. Words of affirmation and acts of service can be like Mars and Venus, but they’re both how people express love.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Somewhat off topic, but for newer movies you’d enjoy, have you seen Sing and Sing 2? Major found family and finding your place in the world despite what others might think themes. Lots of good family feels both between the major characters and with their own families as well.

    I was pleasantly surprised the first time I watched the first movie. In this case, animated did *not* preclude a good story that wasn’t just fluff and nonsense and the second is just as good.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Another thing that’s sometimes overlooked.

    The MC is often an outsider, either new to the area or for some reason outside the normal social structure either from profession or circumstance.

    This means that they can move freely, without the obligations and limitations that “polite” people have to observe, but it also means that they might not have the protections and rights other people have.

    In a lot of cases, “outside the caste system” translates to “at the bottom.”

    So I see a lot of stories where the MC is enthusiastically leveraging their “freedom” by being an outsider, but a lot fewer where they have to face the problems.

    It’s one thing to say you don’t want to buy a house because you like travel too much.
    It’s another thing to say you aren’t allowed to buy a house because you don’t have a good relationship with the local landowner.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. To be fair, that situation can work if part of their leverage is high ranking foreign contacts with some importance in the story setting. E.g. a fic of mine involves the MCs able to do a lot in new situations because of their connection to royalty and association with some big guns. However, for that to work there usually needs to be a lot less flaunting of freedoms and a lot more “these our our resources, here’s the situation, how can we help without losing our resources?”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s less about what the author chooses to do and more about what the characters think is going on.
        There’s a difference between “nothing went wrong” and “nothing could possibly go wrong.”

        If you’re handling multiple situations, that gives you the opportunity to try out different “endings.”
        Have them driven out of town once or twice, it doesn’t even have to be mean!

        “Thanks for everything you’ve done… could you leave now? Like immediately? There’s a mob with pitchforks and torches forming… don’t worry about those insults they’re screaming. They don’t mean that… probably. Except for Joe. He’s a jerk.”

        Liked by 3 people

  6. And be aware that whatever moral system you choose, someone is going to be offended by it. As a good book about a library cat said, “there is nothing on God’s green earth, including God and green earth, that someone will not be offended by.”

    Liked by 4 people

  7. I mean, a big reason why I haven’t had much of an urge to go to the theater lately has been that most of the movies coming out lately just seem to be soulless photocopies of better movies. Marvel movies have lost their shine for me, and I’m getting really sick of seeing advertisements for “___________, the sequel/prequel/live action/movie version of a far superior Broadway musical!” You spend millions of dollars on a movie, and can’t even be bothered to write something original? AND you want me to pay through the nose for poorly-maintained seats and terrible food? No thank you, I’d rather curl up on my super-comfy couch with my Netflix account and rewatch Castlevania again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read a list of upcoming movies for the next year or 2. I stopped after about 100 when there was nothing I wanted to see. I’d rather wade through various Chinese and South Korean series and movies; at least a fair number of their historical fantasies tend to aim toward “Whee! Fun!” Currently watching “A Female Student Arrives at Imperial College”, and the mix of light romance and the drama of investigating a dead-lethal smuggling operation mix very well.

      Or in short: Cruella 2 is on the upcoming Hollywood movies list. Shark, jumped, Hollywood.


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