In preparation to teach my students Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we have been discussing the moral and ethic responsibilities of people in relationships. If you are familiar with the story, you will recall that the entire book (okay, it’s really small) is narrated by Mr. Utterson until we hit the two letters at the end. The book is him trying to discern why there is a strange clause in Jekyll’s will, why this man who he has known for twenty years is suddenly withdrawing himself from social circles.
So I asked my students a series of questions regarding when they would tell on a friend. Shoplifting? Usually not. Cheating on a test? Not a day to day one, but something like the ACT made them consider it longer. Cheating in a romantic relationship? There was a higher percentage that would engage in the confrontation. Doing drugs? Not for something like marijuana, but when I said heroin (which is the highest rank transition drug from marijuana), they all said yes.
But it got me thinking about characters and their own moral code. My husband and I have been watching Leverage lately, a show where four criminals and an insurance investigator turned criminal mastermind set up cons to steal. The catch phrase is “Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.” They are breaking SO many laws, stealing money (to help victims), lying, cheating, manipulating and I cheer for their success every episode.
This will obviously vary depending on the age of your character. For children, and even young adults, they are like my students – playing with ideas and social expectations to discover what their moral code might be. Never tell a lie is one that most learn early, but is that ALWAYS the best way? Never talk to strangers – but what if that stranger is a police officer who can help a friend who was just kidnapped?
As the characters mature, the complications with moral codes increase as well. Often, our characters have been ingrained with the ideas we all share – adults should face the consequences of their own decisions, keep your eyes on your own paper, mind your own business and so forth. But as adults who have had experiences with life, we also all know that there are times when we have to intervene despite what society has said. I would never set out to kill someone, but if it meant saving the life of my child, it is something I would consider. In Les Miserables, Val Jean doesn’t opt for stealing – both bread and another identity – but saving his sister’s child and beating a system for a chance at redemption are both great enough persuaders to overwrite his original moral code.
So take a moment, when creating and editing a character, and ask what their moral code is in regards to the plot you’ve constructed. Do they make an exception to that? What are the circumstances that lead up to that contradiction of decision. And do you allow the reader to see the before, during and after decisions? It is this commitment and investment into a character that will make us love them, appreciate them, and often, agree with with the shift of moral opinion.
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.