As we mature, the complexity of the stories we absorb often hides their underlying morality, and leads us to think that morality is no longer a factor in a ‘grown-up’ story. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. ALL the very finest and most highly rated stories have a moral foundation that underpins the characters, their behaviours, the conflicts and events of your story. Morality provides the cohesion – the theme – that brings a unity to your story. The better your story is bound to a cohesive morality, the higher your story will be regarded by its readership.
What is morality? Why is it important?
Put simply, morality is the subjective definition of good and bad behaviour. It defines how a person should lead their life, as enshrined in the philosophies, ideologies and the laws of civil society. More importantly, our minds and personal development are concerned with how to thrive and succeed in society (i.e., over and above our instinctive responses), and stories that have a moral basis and deliver life lessons through the experiences of the characters attract us more than any other.
Given that the laws that guide a society are defined by people and asserted by people over other people, stories have become an important tool of teaching and learning lessons about how to behave. Religions, for example, have provided the most influential philosophies that guide societies in the last few thousand years, and look how they do it: All religions are personalised around characters and presented as stories. Stories that deliver lessons about how to live our lives, through characters facing life problems and learning lessons about how to deal with them, attract us greatly.
For story purposes morality is always concerned with how a person treats other people. Morality defines those behaviours that would be generally accepted by most rational people to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviours. ‘Good’ behaviour is socially positive and ‘bad’ (immoral) behaviour will harm another person. How do we know our story has a 'bad guy'? Because he compromises the accepted norms of the morality we have been taught since we were babies. How do we know we have a 'good guy'? Because he upholds and asserts the accepted norms of the morality we have been taught since we were babies. A bad guy is selfish, and will harm others to serve his own selfish needs. A good guy is acting for the wider interests of the society.
Whilst there is a clear morality at the heart of the children’s stories listed above, and at the heart of a most stories based around a pure battle between the good guys asserting human values and the evil bad guys behaving selfishly (all the superheroes, every police detective, James Bond, Harry Potter...), the finer stories have even more basis in morality, but with lots more subtlety. Shawshank Redemption: the moral issues surrounding asserting the systems of justice - what happens when the bad guys are running the justice system and the good guy is in prison? Sunset Boulevard: the moral issue is how to treat someone's mental delusion: do you collude with her to prevent a possibly tragic reaction to pulling away the delusional facade? Or do you force her to face reality and deal with the fallout? Notice how each character adopts a moral stance towards the protagonist. There's no bad guy in Sunset Boulevard, just different opinions and moral positions that create the conflict and build to the climax when one stance is 'selected' and asserted into the delusional person's life.
What we really like, in the course of the 'moral argument' that defines a story is when the good guy has to be immoral himself in order to overcome the bad guy. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at my usual go-to example, Back to the Future. Surely, there is no meaningful morality underpinning a teenage, sci-fi, action adventure like this, is there? Well, apart from the Good v. Evil basics (the selfish bully Biff gets defeated, subdued and humiliated whilst the society-positive George gets a princess and a castle and personal fulfilment) the power of the story resides along the lines of Edmund Burke’s much-quoted warning: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
All the time that George weakly defers to the bully Biff, ‘good’ loses out to ‘evil’. Once George has learned his life lesson and has the moral courage of his convictions, ‘good’ triumphs over ‘evil’, society wins out and the world returns into harmony.
Note carefully that George’s behaviour in failing to stand up for what is right is essentially immoral behaviour: His weakness is hurting himself and his future son, wife, family and ultimately the entire society (as is confirmed when Biff gets total control in the sequel...). This is often a characteristic of a fine story. The good guy is behaving immorally and is hurting good people, and the story is about him learning the moral lesson; changing and growing as a result, and thereby defeating life’s evil. Biff is more of a vehicle for George's transition than a massive story factor himself. In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne has to break the law in order to assert the correct moral values of a justice system.
Conversely, in great stories, the bad guy might be obviously immoral, but his actions and moral stance should at least be understandable, not simply out-and-out evil. In Shawshank, there would be many people in society who are perfectly supportive of Warden Norton and his brutal and uncompromising approach to managing hardened criminals. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond is mentally ill and deluded, not 'bad'. In Back to the Future. Lorraine says she wants a ‘strong man’. Biff is as strong as they get, and is happy to demonstrate his strength, dominate and take charge. This is understandable behaviour, even though he goes too far.
Many fine stories have their morality hidden behind other more dominant themes, such as a journey or action sequences, but it will always be there. One of the clearest examples of a story with an architecture based entirely on its morality is Juno. The moral theme running through every scene, is ‘teenage pregnancy’. If you think about this story, every character provides a different viewpoint on the moral issues surrounding teenage pregnancy. Abortion, parental responsibility, under-age sex, morning-after pills, adoption, father’s responsibilities, babies-as-commodities and so on. The conflicts in Juno don't come from any bad guy. There isn't a bad guy. They come from the different stance each character adopts on the moral issue of teenage pregnancy, and Juno is there in the middle having to make a decision – a life-changing, difficult and grown-up decision - in her young judgement. We learn a lot of life lessons from this story, and the moral-as-theme is not only central and very evident, but also a terrific example of how you can and should use morality in defining the conflicts and characters of your story.
And, once again, it is worth noting that our hero, Juno, not only behaves immorally herself (in having underage sex she hurts herself and those around her) but whatever decision she makes for herself and her baby will be in conflict with one or another of the various characters in the story. Juno may not be everyone’s favourite film (largely because of the unrealistic dialogue) but it is a beautifully crafted story with great lessons for writers in how to build a story around a moral theme.
So where is the morality in your story? Does that morality imbue every sequence? Is every character involved in the moral argument your story presents? Are your conflicts built fundamentally around the differing moral positions? Does your protagonist become immoral (i.e., hurt themselves or others) in the actions they take to achieve their aims?
These things characterise the most highly rated stories.