Fight like a girl

Inherent Subjectivity of Morality in Character Development

Recently I read an article in a writer’s magazine about using “moral dilemmas” to make literary characters better. It said that “a character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.”

I wholeheartedly agree, except where my position differs. First, and most specifically, with the article’s headlined focus on morals. Wherein, I see a clear cut difference between highly subjective morals and universally objective ethics.

Morals are often religion-based, hence likely skewed towards sexism, as in value judgments about women when men aren’t held to anywhere near the same standard. Morals often invoke outright misogyny, as in women being blamed for every world problem without subjecting males to similar derision and outrage—or accountability. Females are especially targeted when they fight back against societal dictates couched in morality that treat them as second-class citizens—or worse.

Another example involves professional versus private lives. In the legal profession, for instance, I’m more concerned with an attorney’s professional ethics than their personal morals, because while I may not share their morals, I expect their ethics to comport and comply with professional standards regardless of what religion they practice—or preach without practicing.

Whether someone attends church regularly and professes to be devout in their faith is often used as proof of being a morally upstanding citizen when it is simply not a reliable indicator of any such thing. More than a few corrupt GOP members of Congress who spout bible verses have proven that.

Due to inherent subjectivity, being a so-called moral person does not translate to acting as an ethical one.

In the aforementioned magazine article, the author suggests presenting a character with the moral dilemma of holding two equally strong convictions in opposition to each other in order to create tension. The first example used is a woman who wants peace in her home, yet also openness between her and her husband.

I knew it was a man who wrote this article right then and there, and once I looked up the author, I was correct. As a grown woman with a multitude of experiences, I take issue with the presumption—from a man—that the ultimate feminine moral dilemma is a wife who seeks to placate her husband.

The next example presented involved a faith leader with concerns for his daughter, invoking patriarchal protectionism, and once I got to the direct quote from the Christian bible I no longer wondered why this article had the word “moral” in the title.

Not all characters in a novel must live traditional lives under the same patriarchal religious faith with the same potential life dilemmas. After all, real human beings are not homogenous, regardless of those who choose to see the world myopically. There are ways to show conflict and courage of convictions that don’t involve women appeasing men, fathers protecting their daughters, or biblical “moral of the story” messaging.

Which brings me to the second way I differ with the character “without a spine” point. There is a way to show character development, wherein it might seem as if a woman lacks spine—until she gets her mojo going.

In my Other Worldly novel series, for example, my protagonist Rowan Layne has plenty of attitude and conviction of purpose, but in the first book, Alienable Rights, she might seem spineless, offering surprisingly little pushback against a difficult live-in boyfriend (oh the moral scandal) who is much younger than her (ditto on the moral scandal).

The reality is, Rowan is conflicted and doesn’t fully realize the gravity of the situation because she’s in survival mode. Does she challenge a military veteran and risk being viewed as immoral, unpatriotic, and unkind? Or does she risk being viewed as spineless if she dangerously succumbs to an abusively cruel, manipulative bully?

Even strong women with loads of sass can find themselves in such a difficult dilemma. Is it spineless to have a big heart and to want someone to share your life with? Is it immoral to expect that male someone to have personal ethics and exhibit basic human decency?

As in real life, it takes Rowan longer than the first novel, or first few months after the relationship is over, to recognize the nightmarish situation for what it was. To grow as a person who no longer blames or mistrusts herself as a result of being in a relationship with a toxic, narcissistic sociopath.

One would hope this is a character that (at least) women can cheer for, even though it took Rowan time to reach the courage of her convictions. Her personal ethics that had always championed those serving in the military had to come to grips with standing up for herself and not letting the world define the good guys for her on their terms, using their sexist, morality-based judgments.

It could be that characters who are overly judgmental about, or concerned with, morals of others are those who are the most immoral of all. Because all the sanctimonious morals in the world don’t denote personal integrity. In novels, and in life.

2 thoughts on “Inherent Subjectivity of Morality in Character Development”

  1. Being a non christian I totally agree with you. And my books, romances and children’s don’t speak of christian “morals”, but of wider ethics that are world needs that children need to stand up for.
    Or at least I hope that is what I am communicating when I write.

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