Friday, July 11, 2014

Character Values

Most stories I write have a bent towards philosophy and the question of what's 'right', without ever really coming to a definitive answer.

Themes of trust, sacrifice, choices, and love are always in there, because you can't tell if something is really a 'value', unless it's tested.

For example, most of us 'value' honesty, but if you find a $50 bill on the street, and no one is around, would you leave it there since it's not yours?

Most of what we claim are our values, are really only 'aspirational values' -> where, if it was tested, we would not actually choose to stay the path. We might aspire to be honest and never steal, but really, how many of us would leave a $50 bill on the street if there was no one else around?

In 'TRoRS', the anonymous main character is constantly cycling back to what s/he should have done differently, and at one point, thinks this:

You can starve to death on principle. To steal successfully is to understand that morality is like a warm jacket you can put on and take off. 
You want to be all resolve and desire with no other emotions jamming up your head. Tension means your brain is getting in the way of your gut and thinking only slows you down. To thoroughly cut off the baggage of morality, you can’t be human. You can only be a bag of meat that needs to survive.
And people understand that more than they let on. Whenever there’s a riot, or a natural disaster, or a war, the same people who would lecture you for stealing a bag of beef jerky will loot stores, trample children, destroy property, and beat to death anyone who gets in their way.

In 'AotD', Sikka only starts to care about being seen as a different person than her twin sister after Issa kills a god.

In 'SO', Simon constantly puts a higher value on his brother Hector, but he will risk his own life, or Faith's life, without question.

...and in 'SL', Jay wrestles with a different moral question: Can he give up painting to save Kell? Painting is his entire identify, his scholarship depends on it, and, in his mind, it's all he has, all he trusts, all he can rely on.

I've said on here before that I don't particularly like trilogies because they (by necessity) inflate the stakes with each successive book, until it's nearly always a matter of 'saving the world'.

To me, that almost always turns the more interesting, personal moral quandaries into black-and-white matters of 'good versus evil'.

One line that particularly irks me is when a character says, "I had no other choice", because there always is a choice.

Phrasing it like that turns the situation into a 'moral' decision, which usually means elevating a personal choice by making it a universal claim.

Okay, I don't know if that explanation was clear... so let me try to explain it in a different way...

Going back to 'AotD', after Issa kills a god, she disappears. To track down her sister, Sikka has to tell a lie: that she was the one taken, not Issa.

Obviously, it isn't a lie she has to tell, but if she told the truth, no one would let her leave the village and track down her sister. Telling the lie makes it easier for her to accomplish her goal by allowing her to avoid dealing with the people in her village that she is indebted to.

When you get right down to it, she's making a selfish decision. Sure, she justifies it by telling herself that, if she told the truth, no one would let her leave, so she's lying to save her sister.

But really, is that the only choice she had?


Similarly to when 'the good guys' in movies drop their weapons because a 'bad guy' is holding a gun to a child's head.

Do they really have 'no other choice'?


If the bad guy gets away and kills a thousand people, that's on the good guy's head... but it's more abstract for a bomb to kill a thousand people than it is to actually watch a child being shot in the head.

It's a personal moral choice the good guy is making -> to save one child he can see, instead of theoretically saving a thousand people he can't see. He's putting a higher value on the one person his choice will directly impact. If the child dies, he will be considered a bad person.

It's the whole idea of when we're told we "should" do something, instead of asking, "what could we do?"

"Should" turns the situation into a binary choice: you should do the right thing, as in, take the higher road, which suggests that if you don't make the decision you 'should', then you're taking the low road.

The good guy 'should' drop his gun to save the child.

...but turning the decision into a binary question leaves no room for alternative paths.

What 'could' the good guy do instead? He could stall, he could shoot the bad guy in the foot, he could shoot the child in a non-lethal part of the body, like the shoulder or leg, because really, would the bad guy want to bother with a hostage who can't run/move and needs medical attention?

...and those are just a few examples that popped off the top of my head. But all of those would be much harder on the hero. It's easier just to put down the gun and say, "I have no other choice." He's laying the blame on the bad guy, turning a personal decision to make life easier on himself into a universal decision of what's 'right'.

We tend to whittle questions of value down to binary ones, because they justify what we want to do.

And since humans are lazy, usually that means making the choice that's less work for us.

When we claim we took the moral high ground, it's an indirect accusation that whoever disagrees with us is taking the low road.

Next time you hear a politician, a journalist, or anyone else loudly throwing around the word 'should' (or its alternatives 'have to', 'must', etc), take a step back and think about it. Why are they trying to turn it into a binary question, a question of high/low ground? Why are they trying to justify their position in terms of value/morality?

And think about the practicalities.

Turn the question into 'what could we do?'

To make a character well-rounded, we always need to think about values, but rather than slapping on some universal ones like 'honest', or 'brave', I think it's always worthwhile to think about whether your character actually stays the path when in a point of temptation or crisis. Are those 'values' you assigned true values, or are they only aspirational values?

I think about this a lot in YA books. It's easy to find clear examples in 'save-the-world' type genres, but they still exist in quiet contemporary novels, because there's almost always a 'best friend', and more times than not, when you actually look at the behaviour of the main character, they treat their best friend like crap, or the best friend only appears in the story when the main character needs advice, or needs to complain, and otherwise conveniently disappears from the story, especially if there's a budding romance in the works.

Okay, time to wrap my arm in a heating pad for about an hour... typing even just this post is still a huge problem.


  1. 'We tend to whittle questions of value down to binary ones, because they justify what we want to do.' ... oh, yeah. I personally like having a lot of fun with what happens when people refuse to have choices -- such as in Boy & Fox, where Boy flatly refuses to believe Reynard Fox is a monster, because they are FRIENDS. And there is nothing Reynard s willing to do to shake this faith, since it is almost alien to him. In this case it's more about what Boy needs and how they shape the choices he takes, and how all of them are to avoid finding out who he was before he became Boy.

    The magician series is a different kettle of fish. The magician murdered his father, after all. He had other options -- one could argue that in this series magicians are nothing but options, but took that one and the consequences -- with his family and other magicians -- that came from it. Hell, it's why Charlie ends up leaving the magician and Jay for a good time: she can't accept the choices the magician made at certain points were the best ones, and certainly not the only ones. Eventually she might even find a way to articulate that :)

    1. I'm always interested in what choices characters consider before choosing, and how many are presented. I get how, you don't want to waste time (and pages) going through an infinite number of possible choices before moving on with the story, but I always cringe when it's thrown down as a statement that a character ONLY had two choices.

      Maybe it's just me boing picky, when when things are simplified to that degree, specifically, the character's ability to think and reason has been simplified to that degree, I generally assume the character is too dumb to live, or see them as a pawn being shoved around by the all powerful author, and then have very little interest in following the character on their journey.

      But then, I'm entirely open to admitting that's a preference thing. I am super picky about logic and things 'making sense', not to say I'm ruling out pizza-popsicles as a legitimate snack for time-travelers, but explain it in a way where I can get behind it and 'believe' it exists in the character's reality ;)

      LOVE that you're exploring the notion of friendship & monsters in B&F ;) scenes from that northern fairytale have been skipping around in my brain lately... and wondering what's going to happen to Mica (the dog) after he's eaten god flesh... well, besides insanity...

    2. ...or that might just be the codeine talking...

    3. Heh! It is always fun to explore what happens after the insanity/horrible choice(s) :) I still have a certain pair of ogres who get to eat Reynard Fox in this draft as well, though I think this time into it, it will be Boy's response to them that'll shape more of his story. Invoking your shadow to murder ogres will have consequences galore. Revenge tends to alter the questions one is willing to consider quite a lot.

    4. Haha, love the ogres ;)

      ..and revenge always makes a story better ;)


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)