Navigating our Characters Across the Moral Point of No Return

Though many cultures and theologies agree on the existence of evil in the world, no two groups draw the same definitive line as a moral boundary. Additionally they often disagree on if evil is a one way trip, a sort of moral event horizon, or if the opportunity for redemption exists. Though some view the world in absolutes, I would argue that most readers exist in the moral gray area, a place where intention and consequence are significant parts of ethical decisions. As authors, we have an advantage that many courts of moral judgment can only dream about - we are able to show our character’s thoughts and directions in quasi real time.

As authors, we look over the line of good and evil from both sides and use this perspective to manipulate our readers. We want to build sympathy for our protagonist, and so often portray them as good and noble in their fight against oppression, treachery and wrongdoing. Interestingly enough, however, it seems that antagonists are given more moral flexibility. By definition, antagonistic characters simply oppose the goals of the protagonist. Though this often places them on the “wrong” side of the moral divide, there is no requirement that the antagonist be evil. Instead, by presenting a good-evil dichotomy between the protagonist and antagonist, the author is able to make it easier for the audience to know which side to support. Additionally, any wrong actions the protagonist is “forced” to take by the antagonists are in part justified by being actions against a greater evil.

However, I am a fan of interesting character stories, one of my favorites being the slow descent into wickedness in the name of the greater good. In general, people do not set out on a quest with the intent of falling under shadow. Rather, they take small, subtle and “necessary” steps that result in their eventual corruption. Often, they don’t realize how far they have come until it is too late. At some point, however, there is that moment of realization that the choice the character is about to make represents the line between the unstoppable descent into evil and the upward path to redemption. This is the essence of the Moral Event Horizon trope and is a wonderful dilemma to force our characters to face.

As authors, we deal with humanity at its rawest, so it is essential that we are able to stand on both sides of the line of good and evil and stare into both the abyss and the light. By doing so, we are able to faithfully portray the same struggle in our characters. As humans are rarely able to directly observe the intentions of others, we base most of our moral judgments on actions. Fiction removes this boundary, however, allowing the reader to directly interact with the character’s intentions. In this way, we can take part in the moral journey, following the character to the brink of the Moral Event Horizon and beyond into damnation or redemption.


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