How Ethics & Morality Shape Characters (Part 1)


This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Ethics & Morality:

The words ethics and morality are many times used interchangeably. I’m going to resist doing that old article trope of pasting the definitions here, but basically, an ethic is a global, world view provided by an outside source, i.e. a religion, workplace rules, or a society at large, whereas morals are personal, internal guiding principles in accordance to, or despite the world. The two may dovetail or diverge given a lot of factors, but they should not be used interchangeably.

Characters in our scripts have a moral system operating within an ethical one dictated by the world in which you put them. How they feel or act about the ethical world you set up determines a lot of the conflict in many stories. It’s also a way to build a fully-realized character as they fight for or against the ethics system they are involved in physically, mentally, or emotionally. Their moral and ethical codes affect their decisions and choices. It’s noteworthy that the strength of a character is determined by how much they will compromise their beliefs and how much they will stand by them regardless of the grave repercussions.

If I’m writing about the civil war then I have to take into account the Confederacy and the attitudes that were prevalent (and therefore considered normal) in the South at the time. However, my character(s) can hate this 1800s world view and work against it even if they are part of or raised in the Confederate states.

Ethics of the time may say yes to something, but my character’s personals morals say no. That sets up the very nature of conflict. In this case, (wo)man against the world.

That’s why it’s important to understand and acknowledge this distinction and always seek ways to utilize it to improve your story. We’ll explore these concepts using examples found in film and television in a two-part series.

Dystopian Universes

The Handmaid’s Tale, like a lot of dystopian stories bringing out the worst human impulses, has an exaggerated society where the ethics are much different than our current modern society. Women are chattel, breeding machines assigned to households to be raped and bear children, without choice or means of protest. Needless to say, we recoil from this horrible appropriation of human rights and root for those whose morals tell them this is disgustingly wrong.

Beneath the surface of this exaggeration (which is actually political satire) is a commentary on today’s increasingly authoritarian society and the roles that some lawmakers and religious leaders believe are rights that women should and shouldn’t have. Using a world with exaggerated ethical principles vs moral values shows this neatly.

The Final Frontier

Gene Roddenberry always said that the original Star Trek TV series was Wagon Train in outer space. But more true was that he was hamstrung by network censors and sought a different medium in which to play out some of the social issues of the time. He could do those in space in a mythical universe similar to the ethical values of the time. True beauty, the ridiculousness of judging by skin color, war machines – all played out on the Enterprise, but had seeds in the ethical constructs of 1960 society.

Children Of Men, Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange, The Man In The High Castle, and many more movies and television series used this exaggerated ethics vs morals construct to create story and conflict to good effect.

I’m Okay. They’re Okay

Starting a character out with flawed moral values creates a great arc, like in Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. Monster’s Ball sets up Hank Grotowski, the Billy Bob Thornton character, as a horrible racist and shows his transformation through the interaction with Leticia Musgrove, Halle Berry’s character into a more amicable character.

Steve Martin’s character in Leap of Faith begins as a cynical, self-serving preacher who takes great joy in fleecing his flock, but eventually becomes a believer as he sees the error of his ways and what a true miracle is all about. Both Regarding Henry and The Doctor show the central characters’ conversions from godshoe-wearing men to decent human beings who align with the ethical world rather than their corrupt moral one.

Doctor Strange is an ego-maniac who has to become a different person when he seeks to heal his damaged, talented hands and discovers a different set of moral values through The Ancient One’s guidance. Here is an entirely contrary set of values for a man who cared little for people and now becomes devoted to them as a defender of the Universe.

But Go Deeper

Unfortunately, we tend to create what I would call situational morals for our characters. In other words we write only those things that are necessary to our story or situation at the time. Need a character to lie? Easy. How about a kleptomaniac? Sure.

In the romp Something Wild they never really get into much depth with Charles Driggs, the Jeff Daniels character, except to intimate that he’s a “closet” wild man, currently bored with life and looking for ‘something wild.’ Enough, certainly for a fun ride, but maybe a little more depth could have been expressed to give us a reason why he put himself on this out-of-control path.

In the indie drama Smashed starring Aaron Paul as Charlie Hannah, the married couple are both alcoholics and having a grand time of it. But after a series of bad incidents, Aaron Paul’s character decides to pursue sobriety. The story shows the disintegration of his marriage when he starts on that path. He has made a moral decision to work contrary to his ethical world, in this case a life of alcoholism, and the narrative demonstrates both the benefits and the pain that decision causes at a pretty involved level. That’s a deeper and somewhat unique dive into what we’ve normally seen in a movie about alcoholism.

In your screenplay, if there isn’t a profound understanding of your character’s moral universe and their place in the ethical one you’ve set up, then it’s going to ring hollow.

Ethics & Morals Is Key

In life, we can’t always explain why we do things. Sometimes things just feel right at the time.

If you’ve ever been on the other end of a dressing down (or legal action) for something you’ve done you might shrug when asked ‘why.’ Trying to explain behavior is sometimes truly impossible in life. In scripts, that’s not good enough. People watching/reading want the ‘why’ of it to give the characters a motivation and context.

Giving your characters a foundation, like an ethics system, and then putting them in a contrarian position because of their morals is a fairly simple way to go deeper into your story and make it more satisfying to the audience.