Moral alignment in fiction

Here’s a blog post Mike S sent me a few days ago: Moral alignment in literature

Interesting topic! The post starts like this:

What does morality mean in the context of a book? Is it better to have a heroic character whose morals remain firm, or an antihero who “does what it takes” even if it seems morally gray?

Of course, you’ll get wildly different answers based on who you ask. Some people consider objectively good characters to be a bit boring and think antiheroes are more relatable. Others think antiheroes are the product of a cynical viewpoint.

And I pause right there, because the fact is, I don’t think the contrast is between characters whose moral convictions remain firm over the course of the book versus “antiheroes” who are “morally grey.”

Morally grey does not equal an antihero. There are two kinds of antiheroes:

a) A villain who is also the protagonist of a novel; eg, Hannibal Lecter.

b) A protagonist who lacks typical heroic attributes in some other way.

Let me pause and rapidly think of some morally grey characters who are not antiheroes.


Nicholas Valiarde in The Death of the Necromancer. He is a criminal mastermind; he’s devoted a large part of his life to setting up an enemy to be executed for crimes the enemy did not commit. He’s a ruthless master of deception and disguise who kills quite a few people without much of a qualm. But he’s not an antihero.

Nicholas Valiarde is not an antihero in either sense. Obviously he isn’t the villain; the villain is the necromancer. Nicholas also does not lack typical heroic attributes, even though he’s morally gray. He is quick witted, resourceful, and willing to sacrifice his own goals to protect other people. We saw that when Madeline explained how she met Nicholas and we certainly saw it when Nicholas gave up his secret identity and chance at vengeance in order to rescue Ronsarde.

Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly. He’s a small-time criminal, he’s okay with shooting people who get in his way —

— he’s not very nice to Simon or Inara or for that matter practically anyone. He’s definitely morally gray. But he’s not an antihero. Again with the quick-witted and resourceful; again with the willingness to sacrifice his own needs in order to help other people. We saw that in The Train Job and lots of other times.

I’m sure there are a zillion other examples.

True antiheros:

Hannibal Lecter, a vicious, sadistic serial killer whom the audience is supposed to sympathize and even root for in the movie “Hannibal.”

Jaime Lannister, a vicious, sadistic murderer whom the reader is supposed to sympathize with, somehow, in Game of Thrones. I understand the show toned down Jaime’s horrible character, but it’s perfectly clear if you read the books that GRRM is trying to get the reader to sympathize with Jaime long before the end of the series, even though he starts out trying to murder a child who saw him having sex with his sister.

Glokta in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, who is a professional torturer and completely willing to cut the hands off people he knows are innocent of any crime because he just doesn’t care. By the end of the trilogy, the reader is supposed to sympathize with Glokta, who has managed to do one or two not-completely-horrible things over the course of the story.

Those guys are antiheros.

Back to the original post:

Flat character arcs, in which the character maintains their beliefs and morals they had at the beginning of the story, do not necessarily mean boring.

This is true, but I expect the characters in question may have arc-shaped character arcs in some other way, even if they do not compromise their moral beliefs at any time during the story. Let me see. All right:

Cordelia Naismith maintains her basic moral principals without compromise all the way through her entire story, from front to back in the Vorkosigan novels. But she doesn’t have a flat character arc. In Shards of Honor she has the typical romance character arc, moving from a belief she will never find love through rejecting a chance for love to accepting love. In subsequent books, her character develops in other ways.

Maia in The Goblin Emperor has a flat character arc in terms of moral convictions, but a high-vaulting character arc in terms of personal growth in confidence and acceptance of responsibility.

Kit in From All False Doctrine is a lot like Cordelia — his arc is a romance arc, with absolutely steady moral convictions throughout.

Again, lots of examples.

The post winds up this way:

I’m in hopes that culture is veering back to an appreciation for morally strong characters again. Maybe people are just tired of edginess after Game of Thrones, or maybe people are looking for hope in a very chaotic world. In any case, culture needs some appreciation for black and white morality…because everyone is governed by morals, even if they don’t call them that.

I share that hope because I also prefer morally strong characters, but I’d maintain that Nicholas Valiarde is in fact a morally strong character in a non-black-and-white way.

Overall conclusion: morally gray should not be conflated with villainous or evil; edgy is not the same as trying to persuade the reader or viewer to root for horrible protagonists; and moral ambiguity does not make a character an antihero.

If you have a favorite morally black-and-white or a favorite morally ambiguous protagonist, do some name dropping in the comments!

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11 thoughts on “Moral alignment in fiction”

  1. The bit about black and white fixed morals threw me a bit. I like it when a character has strong convictions/a moral compass, but the world is full of grey, and a lot of interesting stories/character moments come from characters trying to reconcile their morals with the decisions they see before them. Some things are black and white, but not everything is. For example:

    A vulnerability was released in a major security product recently by an independent researcher (hacker). A lot of people griped about that person making work for them over a long weekend, or that they shouldn’t have included as much detail as they did. On the other hand, this vuln was so basic, the product in question couldn’t have undergone much security testing at all – the vendor failed to protect their users. This hacker thought this was the best way to bring attention to the failure and get it fixed quickly. The bad guy largely depends on your perspective there.

  2. SarahZ, pretty sure I can point right to the good guy in that story.

    Yes, I agree, “strong moral convictions” is not the same at all as a black/white conception of morality.

  3. I always think of Pratchett in these sorts of discussions. WTTE, there aint no grey, just white that’s got grubby. (Granny W.) Also of someone who once put it as ‘how to choose the least bad of the rotten choices” . While in general I tend to agree that what matters is more what’s done than why the choice was made… there is a difference between someone deciding to prioritize saving people because they need it and because it will look good and help achieve a personal goal. (I’m sure I’ve seen that, but can’t dredge up examples right now. GRRM seems a likely place to look, though. Dunnett’s (historical fiction) got such a character, but as antagonist/villain. Although her second series protaganist definitely has moral problems.. I guess he’s grey, but I wouldn’t call him a favorite. Oooh, how about young Miles Vorkosigan, winning a war because…why? And gifting his armed force to the Emperor to get himself out of trouble?

    Taudde in your Door series is white that’s got grubby and is trying to get cleaner. :-).

    Granny, I guess, can be a favorite B/W protaganist, partly because she didn’t want to be the Good One. It’s not easy for her, and I respect the author for showing that.

    I guess I don’t read characters in the terms requested – I’m having a dreadful time coming up with examples.

  4. You can probably tell that I’m more critical of the company than the hacker, but it seems like a minority opinion

    But, I guess my point is that any morality that’s too inflexible can end up circling around to something ugly again

  5. Nick Fury in Marvel movies is (this family has decided) lawful evil. So I guess a candidate for morally ambiguous.

  6. Oh, yeah, I think I agree about Nick Fury.

    Medair is a really interesting comparison. I need to re-read those, too.

    As someone who doesn’t care if various IT personnel have to put in a long weekend once in a while, I’m definitely cheering on the hacker. And yes, inflexibility is bound to get someone into a bad situation. The single best example I can think of that demonstrates that is Javert in Les Miserables. His entire problem is inflexible black/white moral convictions.

  7. Medair… interesting candidate. Her problem is figuring out what the right thing to do is when all the choices she’d been prepared for are long gone. I think in her own head and the narrative she’s a B/W unambiguously in favor of good, but she’s aware that some people will disagree. she gets the small things right, helping people in trouble when not required.

  8. Fascinating topic given short shrift by that blogger. I think their problem was starting with poorly defined terms: “a heroic character whose morals remain firm, or an antihero who “does what it takes””—”heroic,” “morals,” “firm,” “antihero,” and “what it takes” are all used vaguely or incorrectly.

    Totally agree with Sarah: some of my favourite character arcs are when characters with moral convictions have to figure out how to use those convictions in real-world decision-making. Tuyo being a fine example!

    Part of what makes Miles Vorkosigan such a great character is that he does have a strong moral compass (he was raised by Cordelia, after all, and Aral), but he tends not to consult it until he’s thoroughly lost! A lot of his character arc is him figuring out what his convictions are by being thrown against them in extremis.

  9. Well, if we’re talking about fiction generally, Bernie Rhodenbarr in the Burglar series by Lawrence Block?

  10. Jeanine, sure, any fiction. I don’t happen to have read any books of that series, though I’ve heard references and I guess they must be at least roughly similar to Donald Westlake’s books. Dortmunder would certainly be a good example of a morally ambiguous protagonist who’s really a pretty nice guy, just very unlucky in crime — I expect Bernie Rhodenbarr is something like that too.

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