The Moral of the Story - Tapestry on CBC Radio
What with the impending US elections and, more personally, a current challenge in constructing motivation for a villainous character, this radio programme on the topic of moral certainty was pretty interesting. What are you doing right now? Cleaning the house? Oh, just throw it on and give it a listen.
Certainty in general is something I have a hard time with, never mind moral certainty. That’s why the exaggerated red-vs-blue back-and-forth going on in the leadup to the US elections is so mind-boggling. It seems as though everyone’s so set in their beliefs, and that instead of becoming more moderate or open-minded, the general trend is toward investing more heavily and indiscriminately in each side’s modes of thinking. This has scary implications, as I’m sure you can imagine.
On the other hand, it’s pretty useful. The opposite end of the spectrum is the infinite gray areas of total indecision and unlimited potential. Again, I’m suspicious of certainty, and this sometimes (okay, often) manifests in a crippling inability to make decisions. You should seeeee all my Photoshop layers and versioned files.
Indecision also makes it hard to write strong characters. It leads to weak writing in general, I find. A lot of discipline is required to ensure that each character is not capable or interested in the complete range of human beliefs and motivations, and I still don’t think I’m very good at it.
Most recently, I’ve been trying to create a really vile, reprehensible villain. Initially, it was hard to make him do the reprehensible things I want him to do. A lot of the time, the roadblock to allowing him to make certain choices was, “no right-thinking person would do that.” This is laziness on my part. When I considered of one of my character’s motivations, I let my own morals decide that this character couldn’t possibly justify that. That’s not just lazy, that’s uncreative. The character should have his own morals.
The real fun began – and the character started to become really enjoyable - when I forced myself to come up with reasons for him to justify his heinous motivations. It was tough at first, but got easier as I went along. That’s why this podcast resonated with me - I was having to develop the habit of considering why someone else could justify an action that I personally would find unjustifiable - and the podcast spends a good amount of time discussing how moral manipulations allowed historical atrocities to be committed. I’ve read that a strong villain has strong convictions, and this podcast helped me understand how convictions I would consider “wrong” can and have been developed. I found a lot of interesting food for thought in there.
If you’re a creative type, I recommend giving it a listen. It’s not much fun, per se, but it’s useful. Being able to consider the full range of moral investment is a good bit of mental gymnastics and an invaluable addition to your toolkit.
If you’re NOT a creative type, hey, maybe it’ll help you understand your fellow voters a bit better, even if they do seem to be villains.