Wrong, Right & Left: Creating an Alien Moral Code


More world-building stuff. Yay! This was prompted by a discussion over at Lair of the Jiggy Beast, where he was talking about the tendency of roleplay characters to Evil Neutral morality. A lot of our heroes end up doing morally questionable things in the name of the greater good (or just ‘coz), at least by our standards. Swords and sorcery settings are, by their very nature, violent. The protagonists are frequently forced into acts of GBH at the very least. And because it’s the fantasy norm, we accept it. Which raises the question of variable moral standards both within the characters and within the readers.

These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.   ~ Groucho Marx

The thing is, despite this evident flexibility in the minds of readers, it’s rarely taken advantage of. We build fantastical worlds and cultures, and fill them with morals very similar to either our own or the fantasy norm (which is to say, our own with added violence provided it turns out okay). Yet moral differences exist between real life cultures and are one of the key ways to distinguish those cultures. They identify what is valued and reviled, the type of people that do well, even aspects of history. They’re a great way to both make a culture feel exotic to a reader, and to bring them into it.

I’m not talking about amorality, here. Amorality is the ignoring of the common moral standpoint, not operating within a different one, and it’s also quite a common character approach. Nor am I talking about the morals and ethics of actual aliens, necessarily. A human culture with different experiences and history to ours will have different standards of behaviour. This is true of the real world so why not of the fictional one? Now, this guy over at SciFi Ideas makes some excellent points for why our morals are the way they are. But where he holds that there is a basic morality that transcends education or culture, I disagree. It all depends on perspective. And, according to Robert Wright, tech level.

1. Technology as a moral driver

The global community

The global community

Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games.   ~ Robert Wright

Basically, the more we talk to people, the more we have to acknowledge that – despite their differences – they are the same as us. That leads to greater acceptance and co-operation within societies. The approach of a culture to difference is a key driver of morality. Gender, skin colour, caste – all these play into the world-view and ethical approach. They’re also really easy ways to flag to your reader that this culture has a foreign attitude.

2. Religious directive

What is the god/pantheon of your culture like? Are they wrathful or merciful? Are their priests expansionist, fanatical or genuine shepherds of their flock (if that’s even an appropriate simile)? Is there hope for redemption or life after death? Concepts of heaven and hell equivalents? These will all impact the taught ethics of the culture. Fear of what happens to your immortal soul is a very powerful motivator. Likewise the absence of that fear.

The film Agora with Rachel Weisz is a fantastic example of how different religions can impact cultural approaches to things like gender, education, right and wrong. Seriously, go watch it.

3. Cultural oddities

Probably my favourite one. This is where you get to sneak some really flavourful bits in, that show your reader volumes about the culture without having to actually tell them. As an example, a culture who places great emphasis on contracts – and seals them with handshakes – might therefore not like to use handshakes for anything else. One that holds literal truth as the greatest virtue might take a rather restrictive view on interpretive art and fiction.

This is also where you can work backwards to build culture from a character trait. Is there’s something slightly odd about your protagonist or supporting cast that you can make more of? Something you can use to shed light on the place they came from, which in turn sheds light on other behavioural traits they might possess. It’s difficult to know which way round things came in the finished article but, as a guess, FitzChivalry’s Wit in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is an example of this. Fitz can talk to animals – an unusual character trait that leads to a cultural stance on tainted bloodlines, bestial magic and the persecution of those who have it. That shows the reader plenty about the morality of the Six Duchies, from the perspective of one who is deemed unclean.

4. The shadows of history

The concentration camps of WW2, the bloody colonial settling of America, Oliver Cromwell – these have all left marks, however slight, on the moral scenery of Great Britain. If an historical event is significant enough to cause shockwaves in the culture, it will likely do the same to that culture’s ethical approach. What are the landmark events of your fictional culture’s past? What are the knock-on effects likely to be? Maybe a war challenged the usual stance on religious extremism, or made it unacceptable to speak at a certain time on a certain date. Maybe a system of government or a martyred bandit impacted the general perception of what counted as greedy and what was normal consumption.

This is a double-whammy of win for the writer. In one go they can hint at both depth of history and depth of cultural mores, giving the reader a greater illusion of reality and immersion. Just remember not to overdo things – show, don’t tell, and Resist the Urge to Explain.

5. Individual characteristics

Moving away from a cultural norm, why does your protagonist behave in a certain way? What is their private code of behaviour and how did they arrive at it? Why might it be different to that of others from their country? My heroine, for example, was raised by an immigrant and therefore has a slightly odd perspective on what counts as balanced justice. Exploring this difference gives me a chance to bring out elements of her backstory, her relationship to said immigrant and her struggle to equate what she was taught as a child to what’s expected by her own society.

If there’s conflicting approaches, which one is right? What if neither approach fits with the reader’s idea of what is right? Now, there’s a fun thing to challenge in your readers. Can you make them absorb enough of this strange culture that, by the end of the book, they are completely on board with notions that – at the beginning – they might find weird or abhorrent? Minds are made flexible by imagination. Give them the gift of a different point of view.



2 responses »

  1. I’ve always wanted to watch Agora, except since I know what happened historically to Weisz’s character, I….don’t. Ech.

    As for the points, I’ve tried to do some of all of them in my stories, though they’re not meant as moral studies. But it’s interesting to take a backwoods character and drop them into a metropolitan environment, or have the various religious characters proselytize at each other, or have cultures that were traditionally separated suddenly start rubbing shoulders, or kill the God of Law and drive his followers nuts, or just have a cranky prude of a teenage protagonist in a fairly gregarious land.

    Conflict that doesn’t involve fisticuffs! Usually.

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