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Morally Unusual

February 20, 2009

I was watching some television and was inspired by some characters’ moral options.  Often we, as viewers/readers, see the options as the good option and the bad option.  No, that’s probably too simplistic.  There are very few truly bad characters who do stuff just to be bad.  Similarly, how many people do good things that are completely against self-interest?  Let me rephrase: we see the ethical option and the selfish option.

Not very interesting.  I find myself intrigued by those gray options, the ones that give you a chill up your spine that the characters managed to pull it off.  These are tough to write, tougher to make appear anything other than twist endings.  Ah, but the morally ambiguous option is a beautiful thing when properly executed.

The short story “The Catbird Seat” is decent example.  I really like it because the main character has originally chosen the most selfish (crossing into evil) option imaginable, to kill a coworker (if I remember correctly).  By the way, SPOILER ALERT!!! in case you are planning to read some James Thurber short stories for pleasure.  Anyway, he gets cold feet or lacks opportunity or whatever, instead planting a story in his target’s head so preposterous that she will surely share it and surely be thought insane, again if I recall the story correctly.  It has been a while.

The brings to mind the question, “How do I write that kind of morally gray resolution into my stories?”  I’d actually prefer they be grayer, more in the vein of putting the antagonist in a bad spot and leaving him/her a way to save face by giving the protagonist what he/she wants.  Let the killer go but take away whatever treasure the murder was committed for.  Let the cheater maintain victory as long as the true prize is abdicated.  Give up the girl by spilling the beans on the competitor.  It’s the lose-lose ending or at least the no-winner ending.  It’s best if the protagonist walks away with a sense of satisfaction and the antagonist does not, especially if the protag’s cut seems less valuable than the antag’s.

I think there are three ways to achieve endings like these, surprising third options where win and lose are relative.  One way is to luck into them, write a story that presents a clever option as you go.  These are nice but are hit and miss.  Another, plan the twist ending and build the situation around it.  For instance, start with the idea: “the braggart achieves the ultimate stunt but can’t tell anyone without going to jail” or “crook can escape but only by giving the loot to charity”, then figuring out how one would get in that situation, what type character would suffer/gain most from this, what setting would this seem most poetic, stuff like that.  That’s a lot of hard work and planning and might force the story to have an all-too-convenient feel, but I bet a lot of stories work that way.  Then finally there is the kill-the-obvious method.

The kill-the-obvious method is where you plan the obvious ending to a story, then toss that idea.  Plan another; toss that.  Maybe write out the third ending and toss it.  Toss another.  At some arbitrary point you feel like all the choices are exhausted, so you craft another one.  You might have to backtrack to foreshadow this synthetic option or even to make it plausible, but it can usually be done.

The man drinks the poison.  No, he pours it out.  No, he gets someone else to drink it.  No, he’s immune to it.  Again, no.  So what’s left?  Maybe he keeps it.  Why?  As evidence, to threaten someone, as a souvenir…whatever you want, but the point is, who would think of it first?  Sometimes a morally “unusual” choice is the most interesting.



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