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Thread: Writing techniques discussion: The Moral Event Horizon

  1. #1
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    Writing techniques discussion: The Moral Event Horizon

    A story I'm writing has taken quite an interesting direction. The protagonist's friend is allegedly murdered, and they hunt down the man who killed their friend, taking out several of his henchmen in the process. Our 'hero' then changes his name, moves to a new place, and tries to start his life over. However, the murders he committed are his greatest regret. He then later finds out that the friend escaped and was not killed after all.

    I bring this up because I'm interested to hear some other readers' and writers' opinion on the Moral Event Horizon, or the point at which a character crosses a line, and they can't be good anymore. Would the above example be crossing the horizon? After all, the henchmen killed by the protagonist were not evil, and were not involved in the murder, just unfortunate enough to be working for the wrong man. Does the hero's regret for the deaths he caused compensate for causing them in the first place? Does finding out that his friend was alive the whole time make the situation worse?

    More generally, where do you think the line should be drawn? As far as intent goes, if the character regrets their actions, can they, contrary to the perception that they have crossed the line, become good again? Can a character cross the line through an unintentional evil, for example, causing a large amount of deaths through incompetence, inaction, or ignorance?

    Share your thoughts!
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    Registered User Calidore's Avatar
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    I'm not sure there's good answer for this, because the good/evil line is fuzzy and twisty. One-dimensional good or evil characters are both boring and don't exist in real life anyway. Rather than look for a universal solution, I think you should keep doing what you're doing now: Let the characters and story go where they want, and just use your writerly shepherd's staff when necessary to gently nudge them from going too far in a direction you don't like.
    Last edited by Calidore; 01-26-2014 at 01:56 PM.
    You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -- Mahatma Gandhi

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    Quote Originally Posted by Calidore View Post
    I'm not sure there's good answer for this, because the good/evil line is fuzzy and twisty. One-dimensional good or evil characters are both boring and don't exist in real life anyway. Rather than look for a universal solution, I think you should keep doing what you're doing now: Let the characters and story go where they want, and just use your writerly shepherd's staff when necessary to gently nudge them from going too far in a direction you don't like.
    This wasn't really me asking for help about what to do with my characters, but I appreciate the advice.

    I was just wondering where other people put the line between good and evil for a character. Some might consider the example I gave to be crossing the line, while others might see the character as more real, because they're not just a Gary Stu, always doing the right thing and standing up for their beliefs. Obviously, well written characters don't come in black and white.

    To provide a better example, what about Darth Vader? He kills a roomful of helpless children, commits murder twice before breakfast, destroys an entire planet, and yet his actions seem to be forgiven at the end when he... kills yet another person. It never sat well with me, and I was wondering whether other people share my belief that there is a point a character can cross where they can't fix what they did no matter what.

    On the subject of my example, I don't think the hero has crossed the line... yet.
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    The key to the protagonist character is remembering that the line for good/evil is not important, but the line for empathy/growth is paramount. You can have the best and most noble character in the world but if he or she experiences no significant development during the story they are boring and bland. And on the other end of the spectrum, the line between a character like Dexter and one like Walter White is empathy, not honorable traits. Dexter is a bad person struggling to make his badness do good results. But he is a stone sociopath. Walter White is a good man driven to bad deeds for the best reasons. Yet the one we root for is Dexter. Why? His deeds are every bit as bad as Walter's become, and for more selfish reasons. He wants to stay out of jail so he kills bad guys who won't be mourned. Walter's just trying to preserve his family after his imminent death.

    But the story arcs are everything. Dexter in the novels and the series on tv slowly learns to feel and respond to emotion and become, essentially, human. While Walter White's actions become more and more selfishly violent as time goes on. Both story arcs are equally compelling, and both do exactly what they are supposed to. Change a character and change our view of him.

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    Yes, I think making readers empathise with your character is the important thing. I read a webserial, Worm, by Wildbow. His main character, Taylor Herbert, ends up committing very violent acts, and at the end, she violates the human rights standards pretty badly. Yet, as readers we are able to understand the rationale behind her actions because Wildbow expresses her emotions and her thought processes very well. Taylor also questions her actions, making her a very real character- she feels guilty, she tries to reassure hersef, she asks if she's becoming someone entirely different. These aspects help us to connect with her at the emotional level, even if we don't quite agree with what she's doing.

    I would say she definitely crossed the Horizon, but the way Wildbow wrote it didn't make readers hate her for that. So I don't think there is a need to draw a line with regards to the Moral Event Horizon. As long as you can make readers empathise with your character-and as Dono mentioned as well, make sure there's character development- it should be fine.

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    One of the best character studies I ever saw in a movie was Falling Down with Michael Douglas. We start out firmly on the side of this hardworking, stressed out guy who just can't catch a break. And throughout the film, as his actions spiral further and further out, we still maintain that connection with him, that empathy despite his more and more violent acts. We WANT him to get home.
    It isn't until the climactic scene where Duvall ' s cop character, another everyman dealing with life's pressures. In a brilliant bit of scriptwriting he turns the entire film on its ear and makes us see what Douglas has really been building toward. At the same time it dawns on Douglas and the audience, he says "I'm the bad guy? How'd that happen?"

    Genius. We should all aspire to create characters with that kind of depth.

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    I don't think there is or ought to be a "moral event horizon" where a character must be catagorized as good or evil. Fictional (as well as real life) characters are more interesting when they tread that "fuzzy" line between good and evil. The most interesting characters are good people who do bad things or evil characters who perform good deeds for whatever reasons and who show the emotional conflict that results from the tension of the conflict between good and evil within them. The character in Falling Down is a good example, and there are others.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hwo Thumb View Post
    This wasn't really me asking for help about what to do with my characters, but I appreciate the advice.

    I was just wondering where other people put the line between good and evil for a character. Some might consider the example I gave to be crossing the line, while others might see the character as more real, because they're not just a Gary Stu, always doing the right thing and standing up for their beliefs. Obviously, well written characters don't come in black and white.

    To provide a better example, what about Darth Vader? He kills a roomful of helpless children, commits murder twice before breakfast, destroys an entire planet, and yet his actions seem to be forgiven at the end when he... kills yet another person. It never sat well with me, and I was wondering whether other people share my belief that there is a point a character can cross where they can't fix what they did no matter what.

    On the subject of my example, I don't think the hero has crossed the line... yet.
    My bad. I think I overinterpreted your post as "How do I keep my protagonist on the good side?"

    My statement that the line is fuzzy and twisty still applies. I'll add that evil is also more often in the eye of the beholder than the evildoer, and as a result there are about as many of those fuzzy, twisty lines as there are individuals.

    As others have said above, empathy is probably the most important thing.
    You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -- Mahatma Gandhi

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