Why I Write Fantasy: A Question of Morality, Part 4: A Clash of Codes

You can check out earlier discussions of morality in fantasy writing here, here, and here.

This one goes long, as I felt the need for examples to make sense of what I was saying, so saddle up!

This week let’s talk about something a little tricky – the minefield where morality and ethics meet, because in this difficult terrain there are so many opportunities for character conflict and plot development for your stories it’s almost criminal.

First, let’s set some crude and easily disagreed with parameters here. (i.e. what I consider the crucial differences between what I term ‘general morality’ and ‘ethical systems’, or codes of conduct.)

I understand ‘general morality’ as a social and cultural artifact, rules of behavior and accepted norms in any given society that have varied greatly in our own human history, but tend to share some core characteristics: they promote social cohesion and the ability for people to live and work together, to organize their lives around common assumptions. Cultural norms and the sense of what actions are acceptable to a particular people have varied across time and geographical location within our own world, and there is no reason to believe that in fantasy literature those variances could not be more sharply drawn, and would form part of a rich fabric that could enhance and improve any fantasy story.

An ethical system, by way of contrast, is not the rights and wrongs you learned at your mamma’s knee, or absorbed from your peers and elders as you grew up, but is something that as an adult you choose to investigate, consider, agree with, and embrace. Or, over time, reject or enhance, according to your own understanding. My favourite example is the good old Romans. (Cue Michael Palin chained to a wall.) People could in general grow up surrounded by the actions and beliefs of their families, the social structures built around the Mos maiorum and the Roman Virtues, but as adults some could also then be educated in, and choose to follow systems of ethical belief, in the hopes of living the in the best possible manner. In ancient Rome ethical systems like Stoicism and Epicureanism (and many other ‘isms’) existed in addition to, alongside and often in conflict with both each other and sometimes traditional Roman values. And that is before you even consider the religious and cult affiliations present in Roman society – an individual in that culture could have many conflicting demands placed upon their actions and their consideration of what was right, and a vast array of reasons to disagree with people within their own society about how best to act, never mind what to do when they met people raised within a different culture with its own moral norms!

A host of extra options to develop conflicts between characters, nations, religions, and races exists when you add in the wrinkle of personal ethics and ethical orders or schools. You can then easily have scenarios where people on the same side, with the same moral upbringing, can sincerely disagree on how best to meet a challenge, because of their differing ethical viewpoints. This may help to further involve your readers in the story as they feel compelled to take one side or another, or wonder which point of view truly is ‘better’ if there is a ‘better’ option at all! This leads, I think, to an enriched storytelling experience. Now, if only I could practice what I preach!

In fantasy, consider the oaths and strictures of Knightly orders – codes of behavior beyond the standard morality of their people, and how that can complicate things when characters who want to adhere to those codes are placed in a position where their code clashes with their own morality, or the morality and codes of those they are working with. And of course consider the personal anguish if the character realizes they have to compromise their code in order to do the morally correct thing. For instance: a holy warrior fights only for his church, and who adheres to a code of non-interference in secular political matters finds himself compromised when he feels compelled to save a royal child from a dynastic assassination attempt – what consequence will that have for him within his order (will he be cast out, given a penance, sentenced to death?), and almost more importantly, within his psyche? If his identity is tied up in his ability to adhere to his code, what will breaking it mean for him? Beyond that, what will the political result be? How will the enemies and friends of this royal child react to his actions – someone who had sworn never to involve themselves in secular politics is drawn by one action into a web of it, the last thing he (or his order!) ever desired. That could be the entire seed for a story idea, or just one facet of a wider narrative, but I hope you can see how the clash between the character’s code (ethics – his decision to dedicate himself to holy conflicts as the only correct reason for him to fight) and his sense of morality (his inability to stand by and let a child die when he can intervene to save him, though the act is not one furthering his church) has led him into a very interesting and difficult place. He might not be comfortable, but hopefully your readers are very interested in how he will deal with the many possible ongoing conflicts in his life, internal and external!

But it doesn’t have to be only knights in shining/dented/rusty armor that have codes: any character could have a reason for a highly developed personal code of conduct, that they stick to in addition to, or often despite of, the prevailing moral order. An oath of revenge at all costs, the decision never to kill, the refusal (or commitment) to accumulate wealth, the adherence to a rigid ethical hierarchy of actions (lying, then thieving, then murder as bad actions with associated punishments for instance, or a similar hierarchy of ‘good’  actions, which the character may prioritize over more pragmatic concerns), the belief that anyone can be redeemed, the determination to never act on emotion, all these things could be major issues that could cause conflict between characters, or be the seeds for enmities that grow much more profound. The advantage is in having the roots of those conflicts lie in something your readers can trace for themselves and understand, even if they may disagree with them! This, I believe, leads to far deeper characterization, and better development of plot, as the conflicts will have a more personal and organic resonance between the characters, and for the reader.

Another form of code can be caused by trauma – a compulsion formed because of, or as a reaction against something that happened in the character’s life. Think Batman. There can be ethical and moral repercussions, but these codes tend to be more irrational, harder to control on the part of the character, yet also something that they could learn to be free of, if they can either resolve their original trauma, or learn to put it behind them. Or they could remain trapped in that behavior – it is the writer’s call, and is a very strong story hook indeed.

In popular culture Batman’s refusal to kill, borne of his early personal experience, has had many unfortunate unintended consequences, but it is a code he will not break, and drives many dilemmas in his adventures. It would be easier for him long-term if he just killed his enemies rather than returning them to Arkham. Simpler, but how much would be lost to his mythos, and how much weaker would the stories that can be told about him be, if he just killed his opponents. And of course he would then lose his grip on being a hero with a moral compass to be admired: his code is what elevates him above the criminals he fights. Speaking of the criminals he fights, Two-Face similarly bound himself to a code that in his case can be a weakness when often the flip of the coin results in him committing to actions that are not in his best interest, that a rational actor would have avoided: this makes him a much more compelling antagonist, as you know that once he flips that coin, he is all in, whichever way it falls. You can wish he would make the other choice, but for him his code (or psychopathy, let’s be honest) forces him to honor the coin. The Joker… well the Joker is a morass of contradictions and whims, most deadly, and could take an entire series of articles on his own to pick apart and explore!

Anyway, I hope this helps you see that ethical codes can add dimensions to your characters and reasons for their actions beyond just the morality of their culture or indeed their religious beliefs. These three things can often confusingly interact and seem very similar, (I did say it was a minefield!), but if you can draw the distinctions, at least for yourself as a writer, then I think it helps your characters become more real and nuanced in your mind, which I believe will translate onto the page, and into the reading experience. Not every character or antagonist needs to have a code of ethics, (they will all have some sort of moral position, however) but if any do, I think the code begs to be challenged, to make the character’s struggle more intense, and more real for the reader.

Next time I hit this series I’ll discuss morality and social class. Does, and should social status effect moral decision making, and how can that impact storytelling in fantasy?

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