Morally Murky

The morals we hold are what shape us as people. They are behind every decision we make and how we feel about ourselves. So I have to wonder what happens when it’s not so clear about what is right and what is wrong?

by Jamie Campbell

Perfect characters are boring. Nobody likes to see a perfect person succeed, we much prefer to cut them down and throw them in a pile with the other tall poppies. There is no satisfaction with an unflawed person getting what they want. Where is the struggle? Where is the triumph? They  are just getting what they expect. Yawn.

What is far more interesting is a character that makes us think, makes us question ourselves and our own morals. A person that blurs the line between what society generally regards as right and wrong. That is a character that will grip us to the end of the story and even beyond.

What is far more interesting is a character that makes us think.

Your character may have a completely skewed view of the world. They might think it’s okay to kill (e.g. Dexter), they might think it is perfectly fine to steal (Ocean’s Eleven), they may think it’s just neat to mess with people (Sue Sylvester from Glee). So why do we still like these people if their morals don’t align to our own?

One word: Backstory. Given the right set of circumstances, we can justify actions and remove the evil tag. We can see the humanity in the character and understand why they do what they do. And we can agree with them. We can shift our perspective of what they are doing and align their actions with our own moral code. Not an easy feat.

A perfect example of this is the television series Revenge. The main character Emily is obsessed with ruining the lives of the rich and fabulous in the Hamptons. She is perfectly fine with setting houses on fire, breaking up marriages, manipulating a guy to fall in love with her, and ruining businesses. For all intents and purposes, she’s a calculating sociopath. Yet we cheer for her.

Without the backstory, this show would not work. While curious beings, we’re still aligned with our morals. Emily has a reason for doing what she does – all those people ruined her family and killed her father. She isn’t just doing it for fun, she’s seeking justice against those that created her sob story. We feel for her, we see her pain, and we understand her desire. We see the humanity in her actions and that is why we cheer for her.

We can see the humanity in the character and
understand why they do what they do.

Morals can also help us to take up a cause along with our character. How many fictional people can you name that had an overwhelming need to fight an injustice? Probably thousands. Morals can tear us apart, but they can also unite us.

The best example I have seen recently is The Hunger Games. The main character Katniss is prepared to kill twenty-three other teenagers. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit too well with me. Yet throughout the entire movie/book, I was cheering for her. When it came
down to it, I wanted her to kill rather than be killed. I aligned my morals to support her quest to fight for her sister, to fight the injustice of the Capitol, and to fight to survive. I was with her throughout the entire journey, compelled to see what happens next. And she definitely wasn’t perfect.

No-one is perfect and no-one wants to be reminded of that fact. If we watch a morally questionable character go through the journey of changing and developing, then it makes us feel good. We get a sense that we aren’t alone, we too could rise up to a challenge. I don’t know about  killing twenty-three teenagers, but I would like to think I would stand up for my sister. Once we can relate, we can understand.

Making your character morally murky raises the stakes. It pushes them to a place where the reward has to be worth the risk. It’s a place not visited by the average person, it has to be worth their while. You wouldn’t fight your inner demons for a bar of chocolate, but you might to save the chocolate maker – your father. In Revenge, her reward is an avenged death, in the Hunger Games it is her survival. Both primal desires.

One exercise you can try is to give your character two choices. Both have to be against his moral code. For example, his child has been kidnapped, his only option is to kill the president or blow up the houses of parliament. Which one will he choose? Why? Does the end justify the means? Pushing your characters into a decision tests their limitations and helps you understand them better.

Creating a morally dubious character can be difficult and the execution has to be done right. But when it is, your story comes alive with thought provoking characters that will stay with the audience for long after the credits.

-Jamie Campbell


Jamie Campbell is an author, screenwriter, and television addict.

Jamie is proud to be an Editor for The Story Department.

Her latest spine-tingling thriller Gifted is out now.

Photo Credits: Stock XChng, People.Com

1 thought on “Morally Murky”

  1. Great stuff Jamie. And: great point, on Backstory!
    Great examples too (eg – Dexter, Oceans 11, Glee, and of course, The Hunger Games)
    (and – vague spoiler: I also thought `Dark Knight Rises’ did a great job with this too, including the twist about: who the kid is climbing the wall of the well…)


    JT Velikovsky


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