Moral Philosophy

This might seem like a weird thing to talk about on a blog that spends most of its time focused on reading, literature, and the art of storytelling. But bear with me, because this ties directly into the art of storytelling.


To start, I need to establish something that we all know, something that we're taught sometime in high school but that we know from much earlier on if we like to read. That is - a story isn't very interesting if there's no conflict. The structure of a good/interesting story, as far as human experience has laid it out for us, is that you have a situation with no conflict, then the conflict happens, and the rest of the story is spent with resolving that conflict. Longer or more complex stories may introduce multiple conflicts, either at the same time or in a staggered pattern, so that as each conflict approaches its resolution, a new conflict is introduced to keep the characters engaged in interactions that we want to watch unfold.


You can take this formula and see how it applies to every story you've ever enjoyed, with the exception of certain Absurdist or Slice-of-Life stories that have no conflict or no resolution, and are therefore generally interpreted as less satisfying or interesting that stories which have all three elements (Status Quo, Conflict, and Resolution).


I feel like that by itself could have been a series of articles, but I'm on a roll so here we go!


You might (very reasonably) be asking what any of this has to do with philosophy, especially moral philosophy (that is, philosophy that concerns itself with the interpretation of "good" and "bad"). This is where things start getting interesting.

In many stories, the Conflict portion of the plot is caused either directly or indirectly by a disagreement between individual characters. It could be the Hero and the Villain or the Protagonist and a Love Interest or a Mastermind and a Rebel. There are any number of reasons for this disagreement, but the best disagreements and therefore the best conflicts (in my opinion, anyway) come from fundamental differences in worldview and philosophy. These two things together, Worldview and Philosophy, form what might be called a person's Decision-Making Paradigm, just as the Time and Space axes on a spacetime diagram make the diagram. Without them, it's just a bunch of squiggly lines.


Whew. This is a lot of prep to get to the part I set out to tell you about.


So, to rewind a little, this post was inspired by a discussion I had with a friend not too long ago concerning a difference in how two characters are dealing with a difficult situation.


One character is relatively wealthy and can afford tuition with little trouble. A couple scholarships, some work study. Everything is fine.

The second character thought she had plenty of money, but it turns out her father spent her college fund on something else and took out some very bad loans from "friends" to pay her tuition, and now might lose the family car or even the family home to this mess if she doesn't do what his "friends" want.


The first character (we'll call her Nicole) thinks that this is all a terrible, stupid mess and is entirely the parents' fault, and the second character (Tiana sounds like a nice name, we'll use that one) has no responsibility to solve this mess for them.

Tiana, on the other hand, thinks that she has a responsibility to help her family if she can, even if it's a bum deal for her in the short term.


Both of these points of view seem reasonable, and this is where we finally get to moral philosophy.


Nicole holds (maybe unconsciously) to the idea that "right" is defined by responsibility, and responsibility is defined by actions taken by the self. The actions taken by other selves and the consequences they may suffer do not interact in this case with the person whose responsibilities we're observing.

That is, I am obliged to responsibility for my actions, but not for yours. If I accept that responsibility for my own actions, I am doing the right things.


Tiana, on the other hand, holds to the idea that responsibility is defined by "right," and that "right" is defined by the greatest good/least harm to the people in whom she's invested. If there is an action the self might take to minimize or eliminate the harm resulting from the actions of other selves, then the person we're observing has a responsibility to take that action and minimize the harm as much as possible.

That is, I am obliged to responsibility to take any and all actions possible to minimize harm to others, particularly others I care about.


Both of these philosophies make perfect sense, and both of them are functional in the real world. But because they disagree at certain points, we have two sympathetic characters that, by being in the situation together, have generated conflict between them.

This, I think, is absolutely the BEST way to create conflict in a story. Rather than saying "the villain wants to destroy the world," and building from there (which can be a very fun story, don't get me wrong) it's infinitely more compelling to have two (or more) sympathetic characters that have different ways of looking at things.


Pro Tip: This is also a great way to make redeemable villains. Just remember that it takes a lot of effort and time to change one's worldview or philosophy. If you want to redeem your villain in a believable and compelling way, you need to have that time and effort to spend.

#Conflict #Philosophy #DeepDive #Writing

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