Writers find it relatively easy to create characters who think as they do. It’s much harder to write believable characters who are devotees of a different moral paradigm. This is not to say that it’s hard to write villains: characters who are “just plain evil” can be slapped into a story with a few wide brush-strokes and left to cackle maniacally and murder anyone who stands in their way. (Preferably with a ray gun.)
What’s hard to write is someone who is moral, but whose concept of morality is slightly different (or very different) from the author’s. If it’s done badly, people who read your story and believe differently from you will be offended that you misrepresented their point of view. (Phrases like “straw man attack” and “stereotyping” tend to get thrown around at this point.) If it’s done well, however, creating moral conflict between two characters can shed light on real issues in society today. Writing moral conflicts – and then showing how those conflicts turn out – gives the author the power to invite people into his or her view of reality, and possibly even change people’s ideas about how the world is or should be. It’s a heady concept, but to make it work in reality, you have to understand how other people really think. You have to not just step into their shoes, but step into their heads.
As a sociology major in college, I took a class on contemporary social issues where we discussed this whole idea of differing moralities. The topics we studied were diverse and numerous, ranging from education to religion to politics and beyond. But whatever we studied, the professor kept coming back to one point: some differences go all the way down. At their core, some people come at the world with such different basic assumptions that there is no way that they will ever agree with each other – because even if they use the same terminology, they value fundamentally different things. Freedom versus moral behavior. Equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity. The good of the collective versus the good of the individual. None of these are bad on their own, and good people have fought and argued tirelessly on both sides of each. But they aren’t ever going to agree. Not without a change of heart as well as a change of mind.
So how as a writer do you accurately portray people on two sides of a sticky moral issue? Here are some tips.
First of all, don’t get lazy in your characterization. Characters who follow a different moral narrative than your protagonist shouldn’t be ugly, mean to small children, stupid, insufferable, or anything else that will “automatically” make your readers dislike them. (At least not unless the narrative truly requires it.) Let’s say that I’m going to be writing a story that features two individuals, one of whom believes in “equality of outcome” and the other of whom believes in “equality of opportunity.” Here’s a lazy way of showing which one is “right.”
As John walked home from the bus station, he smiled a greeting at the wrinkled woman in the tattered shawl who sat at the street corner of Elm and Maple. As usual, she smiled back – her teeth yellowed but her eyes bright – and as usual, John reached into his wallet. It wasn’t her fault that her boyfriend had left her with five kids to feed, or that the scumbag one-percenters who ran the town refused to pay their employees a decent wage. With as hard as she had worked to make ends meet before she’d gotten sick and had to quit her three minimum-wage jobs, she deserved a wholesome meal at least once a day, and by God, he was going to make sure she got it. He pulled out a ten dollar bill.
Suddenly, tires screeched and a horn blared just feet from his ear. Jumping to one side with a muffled oath, John just caught a glimpse of the driver of the red Mercedes as it flashed past. A round, fleshy face, a blindingly gold watch, and a contemptuous sneer. The car honked again at the mud-spattered farmer’s truck in its way, sped around it with another squeal of its tires, and was gone. John shook his head. “Someone should teach that punk a lesson,” he muttered.
“And who’s that gonna be?” the woman at his feet asked bitterly. “You?” She looked John up and down, at his cheap Walmart shirt and his patched blue-jeans, and shook her head. “He’d get you fired, son. You and anyone else in this town that dares tell him that he’s no better than the rest of us.”
“I know. It just isn’t right.”
“You’re tellin’ me.” The woman raised her eyebrows. “Thanks for the ten. It’s nice knowing there are some people around who still care about humanity.”
For the other side of the debate, go read some Ayn Rand. Either way, this kind of story makes an argument that will only appeal to people who already believe in the point you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to write a moralistic piece, then that might be what you want to do. If, however, you’re trying to write a piece of fiction that accurately and thoughtfully portrays real people, you’ll have to make your arguments much more subtly. Show people who believe in different things both behaving in a way that readers will find attractive (at least in some situations). Show them both having flaws that don’t relate to the characteristic that’s the moral issue of your story. Show them both making mistakes and learning from them. Show them listening to each other.
Once you’ve established that your characters are real people, your audience will care about them a lot more. Then, when your overarching narrative shows that the protagonist’s viewpoint is what will solve the problem of the story that you set up, the ending feels more believable and less preachy. It takes more work, but in the end, it will have a much greater impact on readers – and that’s worth it.
In our story above, let’s keep John as our “friend of the people.” He’s a worker at Walmart who believes that everyone deserves the right to have a certain standard of living. He cares deeply about the poor, and thinks that no one needs to earn a million dollars a year. People who are rich and greedy (which is pretty much everyone who’s rich, because if they weren’t greedy they probably wouldn’t be rich) should be required to help out those who haven’t gotten as lucky. He gives away ten percent of his income every year to help people who are down and out, and he volunteers on the weekends at the Homeless Mission. Everyone who knows John thinks that he has a real heart for the poor, and that he’s a real kind guy – if a little intense.
In the new version, however, our protagonist will actually be John’s coworker, Angelee. Raised by a single mother, Angelee is working at Walmart to put herself through college. She’s earning a degree in finance, because she’s good with numbers and she wants to make sure that she’s never broke the way her family was when she was growing up. To that end, she has seized on every opportunity she’s encountered and has always striven for excellence in the work she does. She fully expects that within a year she’ll be getting a job offer from a finance company, that she’ll study for and become a financial planner, and that she’ll use her knowledge and skills to start the first financial planning practice in her city – which she hopes will provide a much-needed service and also make her comfortably wealthy in the process.
Here’s a conversation that might happen between the two of them, very early in their relationship.
“You give money to that bag lady every day?” Angelee asked, aghast.
John crossed his arms. “She’s not a bag lady! Her name is Roseann and she has five kids to support. So yeah. It’s the least I can do to help.”
“She isn’t a bag lady. So…she has a job besides asking for handouts?”
“She can’t work. She’s been sick.”
“For how long?”
John shrugged. “I don’t know. A year? Two?”
Angelee snorted. “Yeah. My mom had friends who were that kind of sick. Sick of work, sick of life, sick of waking up early and saying yes sir and no sir and doing things they didn’t feel like doing. If you and people like you stopped putting money in her basket, I’d bet she’d get well enough to work right about the time her stomach started rumbling.”
“You don’t even know her! How can you say things like that?”
Angelee raised her eyebrows. “I lived next to people just like her for eighteen years. Right until the day I moved out of the dump my mother had us living in and started at State College.”
“And you don’t feel bad for people who aren’t as fortunate as you are?” John shook his head, incredulity written in his eyes.
“Don’t take that tone with me. I wasn’t ‘fortunate’ – I worked dang hard to get here. Those people all had choices sometime in their lives, just like I did. They could have chosen to study more in school, or to get a job and stick with it even when they didn’t like it, or to not shack up with their boyfriend and get pregnant. I chose to take two jobs, including this miserable one, and go to college so that I could escape from all of that. So no, I don’t feel bad for those bag ladies on the street corners who get to sit and gossip all day while people like you and me work our butts off. And no, I’m not going to give them my money that I earned unless I see a much better reason for it than, ‘they don’t have as much as I do.’”
“I didn’t know that people could have hearts as cold as yours. Do you care about anyone besides yourself?”
“That’s rude. And yes, I do, though I certainly don’t need to justify myself to you.”
John gave her a knowing look. “Sure you don’t.” Turning on his heel, he walked away.
“Idiot,” Angelee said to his back. “Someday someone’s going to pop that beautiful bubble of dreams you’ve built for yourself, and you’re going to have to live in the real world.”
“Same could be said about you,” John responded over his shoulder. “And I want to be there when it happens, Scrooge.”
So who’s right? Both characters are sure that they are. Who would end up “winning” in a novel? That depends on how the author crafts the story. Perhaps Angelee gets to actually know Roseann, sees the injustice that is built into the capitalist system in her city, and she and John become crusaders for the underdog. Or perhaps John finds out that Roseann isn’t really sick and has been spending his money on alcohol and drugs, he realizes that he hates his hand-to-mouth lifestyle (a result of giving away all his surplus income), and he decides that he’s going to go back to school and gain marketable skills.
Or, more likely, perhaps they both give in a little bit but continue to maintain their basic worldview. Maybe Angelee decides that Roseann is an exception, and decides that she’s going to start giving some of her income to people who really need help. And maybe at the same time, John recognizes that investing time now in pursuing an education and a high-paying job will ultimately lead to the ability to help more people in the long run than if he continues to volunteer at menial tasks and give a percentage of his minimum wage away. The story could go any of these ways, now that we have developed characters who feel deeply and strongly about their beliefs, and behave realistically (but not stereotypically) based on them.
So how are you going to incorporate differences that go all the way down into your writing? Or if you aren’t a writer, look for these issues the next time you read a book. Pay attention to how the author develops his/her argument for whatever moral issue or theme the book is addressing. Do the differences go all the way down? How does the author resolve whatever moral conflicts are presented? Is it believable, or do people change too dramatically? Does the author well represent the different points of view of the conflict he or she is writing about?