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.