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The Write Stuff: Moral red lines

Alex Richards

A musical Hubble Space Telescope
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
There's some fascinating examples of this from the world of superhero comics- the crowning one having to be Miller's Holy Terror, which was originally written by him as a Batman storyline, and crossed so many moral red lines (as well as being horrifically Islamophobic) that (although Miller claims it was his idea) it's pretty obvious that DC just told him they wanted nothing to do with it.
 

Death's Companion

General Ugg Apologist.
I actually disagree with you on a lot in this article.


I think it comes from multiple places.

1. As a Catholic its kind of written into my DNA that Redemption is possible for literally anyone at any point, it just might be limited to doing their soul some good rather than anyone in this life including them. I tend to always root for even the worst villain taking steps in a better direction, even if objectively its far beyond too little too late.

2. I've found many of the most compelling stories to be ones about protagonists staring into the abyss and it staring back into them. There is just something...like its rarely a fun read but often its hard to look away as people make the wrong choices for the right reasons again and again until they finally hit rock bottom and start digging and you're just in awe of the hole they've dug.

3. Specifically though and I'd class this as separate as Good people turning into Horrible people over the course of events is that sometimes it can be a very powerful or interesting statement to have someone cross Red Lines as you put it without thought or care. Particularly if they are fighting for a good cause it can be a very useful tool to interrogate the reader about their own beliefs if the person fighting for them is clearly very much a villain in any story they aren't say fighting Nazis. Heck some authors are renowned for making some of the worst villains on the side of the protaganist because it allows a recurring villain who can't be just be shot and forgotten about, and in being forced to work with this person there is a very rich seam of story telling.

4. On very rare occasions its enjoyable to read things from a Villain's perspective. Sometimes in short doses it can be an enjoyable story. House of Cards for instance.




Overall I think that fiction is richer for having flawed/evil/falling characters and protagonists than it would be if they were not there. Writing about an evil person does not make you evil, wanting to read about one the same.
 

David Flin

Real people take priority over imaginary people
I actually disagree with you on a lot in this article.
Excellent. Different perspectives generally lead to a better understanding.

1. As a Catholic its kind of written into my DNA that Redemption is possible for literally anyone at any point, it just might be limited to doing their soul some good rather than anyone in this life including them. I tend to always root for even the worst villain taking steps in a better direction, even if objectively its far beyond too little too late.
Without going into the religious aspect, I've always felt that Redemption carries a Price Tag. If it's too easy (or not required, and they can cross these red lines without anyone within the setting giving a damn), then any redemption is essentially meaningless. They've got to prove that they've redeemed themselves.

There are also some lines (and different people will place the lines in different places) that, once crossed, cannot be uncrossed. Theologically, the character might be able to make their peace with God, but the reader isn't God.

3. Specifically though and I'd class this as separate as Good people turning into Horrible people over the course of events is that sometimes it can be a very powerful or interesting statement to have someone cross Red Lines as you put it without thought or care. Particularly if they are fighting for a good cause it can be a very useful tool to interrogate the reader about their own beliefs if the person fighting for them is clearly very much a villain in any story they aren't say fighting Nazis. Heck some authors are renowned for making some of the worst villains on the side of the protaganist because it allows a recurring villain who can't be just be shot and forgotten about, and in being forced to work with this person there is a very rich seam of story telling.
Pretty much. A spotless, untainted Paladin is boring as a character. Every choice is effectively no choice. Likewise, if there are literally no consequences to morally dubious behaviour (a protagonist casually killing an innocent bystander because they need that bystander's car), then there is essentially no morality. There is no Right or Wrong, merely what happens to be convenient or not. Every choice is effectively no choice from a moral standpoint.

The tensions of teaming up a villain with a protagonist has a long tradition. One example of such comes from Heroes, Series 2 (or maybe 3, I'm going on memory), where Noah Bennett and Sylar are teamed up to recapture escaped supervillains. There's a clear tension involved, and some good storytelling opportunities (sadly wasted, because Heroes was on a downhill slope in terms of storytelling by this point).

Or Gollum and Frodo/Sam going into Mordor. I'm sure there's plenty of fan-fiction out there with Luke Skywalker accepting Darth Vader's offer towards the end of Empire Strikes Back.

Overall I think that fiction is richer for having flawed/evil/falling characters and protagonists than it would be if they were not there. Writing about an evil person does not make you evil, wanting to read about one the same.
No argument from me. Macbeth, for example, is a character who fails. He commits greater and greater acts of evil, and eventually the bill comes due. By far my favourite of Shakespeare's plays.

Put simply, actions have consequences.
 

Hendryk

Nothing ever ends
Published by SLP
Location
France
There's a certain kind of reader for whom the hero crossing moral red lines isn't a turn-off at all, because they actually enjoy the idea of having due justification to cause harm to "certain" people. They want to see the hero forced to abandon what ethical code they have and give the villains what they really deserve--torture, summary execution, genocide, the list goes on.

There are too many examples in fantasy, SF and political thrillers to choose from, but strangely, the first time I remember noticing this was in, of all places, Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing. It's actually quite mild compared to the rest of what we're discussing: the main character (played by Spike Lee himself), after the wrongful killing of a Black person by the police, watches an angry mob gather in front of the pizzeria where the incident took place. He takes a trash can and throws it into the window, prompting the mob to break into all-out riot, loot the pizzeria and set it on fire. I was a teen when I saw that movie and quite unaware of US racial politics, and to me, that completely turned me off both the character himself and the story: he saw a situation on the verge of exploding into violence, and gave the nudge that tipped it over on the wrong side.
 

Death's Companion

General Ugg Apologist.
I
Excellent. Different perspectives generally lead to a better understanding.



Without going into the religious aspect, I've always felt that Redemption carries a Price Tag. If it's too easy (or not required, and they can cross these red lines without anyone within the setting giving a damn), then any redemption is essentially meaningless. They've got to prove that they've redeemed themselves.

There are also some lines (and different people will place the lines in different places) that, once crossed, cannot be uncrossed. Theologically, the character might be able to make their peace with God, but the reader isn't God.



Pretty much. A spotless, untainted Paladin is boring as a character. Every choice is effectively no choice. Likewise, if there are literally no consequences to morally dubious behaviour (a protagonist casually killing an innocent bystander because they need that bystander's car), then there is essentially no morality. There is no Right or Wrong, merely what happens to be convenient or not. Every choice is effectively no choice from a moral standpoint.

The tensions of teaming up a villain with a protagonist has a long tradition. One example of such comes from Heroes, Series 2 (or maybe 3, I'm going on memory), where Noah Bennett and Sylar are teamed up to recapture escaped supervillains. There's a clear tension involved, and some good storytelling opportunities (sadly wasted, because Heroes was on a downhill slope in terms of storytelling by this point).

Or Gollum and Frodo/Sam going into Mordor. I'm sure there's plenty of fan-fiction out there with Luke Skywalker accepting Darth Vader's offer towards the end of Empire Strikes Back.



No argument from me. Macbeth, for example, is a character who fails. He commits greater and greater acts of evil, and eventually the bill comes due. By far my favourite of Shakespeare's plays.

Put simply, actions have consequences.
I suppose other than the issue of redemption which I think we just won't agree on (Though a trope I absolutely loath is someone dies doing something good and are thus redeemed when in my view that is far far too easy and tbh anyone can die for something, much much more in line with them living with what they've done and trying their very best to make it right especially if its impossible to make it right. Trying to be better even after the harm you've done can't be made better is powerful to me) so lets focus on the latter points.


I think we're broadly agreed. I suppose the point to be stressed is that for me either the protagonist doing awful things for good causes or to shine a light on assumptions we make about right and wrong is a hallmark of many great stories. Not essential but it can produce powerful stuff.

I suppose the important part is it has to have a purpose in the narrative. Is it to show the dangers of idealizing certain kinds of people or certain methods of thinking/waging war? Is it to push a character to breaking point either on the receiving end, as a witness or a perpetrator and test the limits of redemption? Basically the age old test, is the work better for having this in it and does it work for the characters involved?
 

Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
Pretty much. A spotless, untainted Paladin is boring as a character. Every choice is effectively no choice. Likewise, if there are literally no consequences to morally dubious behaviour (a protagonist casually killing an innocent bystander because they need that bystander's car), then there is essentially no morality. There is no Right or Wrong, merely what happens to be convenient or not. Every choice is effectively no choice from a moral standpoint.
That's fairly debatable. A shining Paladin might have a fixed end destination, but the smaller choices are where the meat and potatoes of character lie, and thus their technique and style. Does our erstwhile pillar of righteousness display cunning and wit as he disables traps and ambushes, or does he trust in his God and let truth prevail- and then what, of the consequences of this technique? Is the funeral of fallen followers attended in resplendent mail and arms, striving to not let their lives lost be in vain; or perhaps a more somber air is needed, with cloak plain and steel left dull?

Ultimately, I think this isn't a question of "do actions have consequences", so much as a question of "has your character been consistent to the theme." Just as much as a redemption against theme is a problem, there's also the all-too-common issue where despite ever other reason to compromise, none of the characters can extend an olive branch and let peace talk. Ultimately, the author needs to know that something that is great needs to carry an appropriate weight, and when to have that greatness be moved in turn.
 

Avatar Of Khaine

Well-known member
As someone who plays a lot of Paladins in D&D, I definitely agree that there is Character in seeing a character who refuses to bend on their rules even if it causes suffering, in a similar vein to characters such as Stannis Baratheon where part of the story is seeing how the exemplar can stay "true" and what sometimes horrific consequences this might have but also to see the strength in staying true.

EDIT: But apart from this point, I very much enjoyed the article as food for thought if nothing else.
 

Redolegna

Champagne Socialist
Moderator
Published by SLP
Location
Paris
Pronouns
he/him
In terms of 24 and torture, 24 was literally used as justification for torture in an actual senate debate I believe. Which is terrifying for a lot of reasons.
Worse than that. The late and not missed Antonin Scalia based a legal opinion of his on that.

As Bushpunk goes, this one might have led to overdosing.

There are too many examples in fantasy, SF and political thrillers to choose from, but strangely, the first time I remember noticing this was in, of all places, Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing. It's actually quite mild compared to the rest of what we're discussing: the main character (played by Spike Lee himself), after the wrongful killing of a Black person by the police, watches an angry mob gather in front of the pizzeria where the incident took place. He takes a trash can and throws it into the window, prompting the mob to break into all-out riot, loot the pizzeria and set it on fire. I was a teen when I saw that movie and quite unaware of US racial politics, and to me, that completely turned me off both the character himself and the story: he saw a situation on the verge of exploding into violence, and gave the nudge that tipped it over on the wrong side.
Spike Lee says that white viewers have opinions close to yours and that African-Americans don't even ask whether it was the right thing to do.

It's the movie Barack and Michelle Obama went to see on their first date and as I recall, Barack Obama did say he thought Mookie did the right thing.
 

Hendryk

Nothing ever ends
Published by SLP
Location
France
Spike Lee says that white viewers have opinions close to yours and that African-Americans don't even ask whether it was the right thing to do.
Indeed, I was a teenager at the time and knew very little about the history of race relations in the US. Were I to see this movie for the first time now, I hopefully wouldn't have a "default white" reaction.
 

Alexander Rooksmoor

Well-known member
I found David's article interesting. Having read/listened to in recent months, 'Ostland' by David Thomas really a biography of an SS officer who shot thousands of people personally, dressed up as a work of fiction and 'Death Message' by the well established crime author Mark Billingham in which a police detective uses a murderer to carry out a retribution for him. I disposed of both of these feeling it was not right even for a charity to benefit from their sale, though I then worried that I was effectively being a censor. No-one says this stuff is easy.
 

Alexander Rooksmoor

Well-known member
I do think this whole topic is one which brings out sharply the differences between the UK and the USA. As we kind of share English as a common language it is often assumed we share a common 'morality'. However, the UK has not had the death penalty for over fifty years whereas it continues to be used, primarily against young black men with learning difficulties, in 37 states of the USA. Added to that it is a very slow process and those condemned to death are often not actually killed for many years, situations many Britons including all the governments since the mid-1960s, would not accept. The majority of Britons have a far lower tolerance of guns than many (most?) Americans and even those who own or use guns do not worship them in the way that I see so often online and in American books.

The same seems to apply to torture. While I know there are people in the UK who believe to torture terrorists is right, it does not appear to have been normalised in the way it was in the USA especially as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When writing in English there is a challenge that US readers will buy your books and aside from complaining you have spelt things wrong, they might protest that your attitudes to gun ownership and torture betray you as a 'leftie' or a 'liberal'. I suffered harsh criticism for arguing a US victory in the Vietnam War (and indeed the Bay of Pigs invasion) would have been bad for the USA, though I felt that the examples of post-war Iraq and Afghanistan showed the severe difficulties US forces face when they win.

The flipside to this is judgement of morality in terms of sex. The UK is sometimes seen as repressed but in many ways it has been liberal from the mid-20th Century though not as soon as continental neighbours. Yet in parts of the USA some states did not end miscegenation laws until the 2000s and there was resistance to same sex marriage. Some states treat oral sex as a crime. Abstinence as the prime form of birth control is taught in large swathes of the USA. Though ironically as the case of Jerry Lee Lewis brought home back in 1957 when he legally married a 13-year old, that many of the 'moral' laws in the USA are archaic, they do complain about British licentiousness.

I am not advocating any greater tolerance of people's behaviour than you personally feel is correct. However, as authors we are putting ourselves out there and have to be alert to the fact that what we judge normal and is acceptable in our own culture may not be so for our readers and we may encounter hostility as a result.
 
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