Saturday, May 14, 2016

Story vs RPG Part 6: Character Alignment, Morality, and Ethics

Story vs RPG Series
Story: Elements
Story vs RPG Part 3: Character Information
Story v RPG Part 5: Personality Types
Story v RPG Part 6: Alignment, Morality, and Ethics
Story vs RPG Part 7: Character Needs
Story vs RPG Part 8: Character emotions
Story vs RPG Part 9: Lies - Our characters darkest secrets
Story vs RPG Part 10: Setting - cultures
Story vs RPG Part 11: Pair Dynamics
Story and Game Structure: Storylines
Story vs RPG Part 12: Larger groups - conformity & deviance

If you like this series support it by buying it today for kindle all in one file and without advertisement. Available in most countries that Amazon supports. 

In fiction instruction, I was taught that characters have motives that drive them to achieve goals in the story. Some of the character motives are beliefs in what is right and what is wrong. In my last post on personality types, I listed several systems of motives of another type - values. In this post we will look into systems of right and wrong - morality or ethics.

Different characters may hold varying beliefs of what is right and what is wrong.

In RPGs, morality in many games is a part of the alignment system. In a game like GURPS, morality is part of the disadvantages. In stories, it may be part of the character's actions, reactions, dialogue, internal dialogue, behavior descriptions, and backstory - seen, hinted at, or hidden from readers.

Morality is the principles used to decide what behavior is right and wrong; good and bad; fair and unfair. It may even tell how much the degree of the value of behavior is compared to other behaviors.  Ethics is a synonym for morality.

Morality is behind the character that cheats on their partner, commits a vicious crime, betrays a friend, or disowns a son or daughter. It's also behind situations when characters forms a intimate bond, help another, saves someone, gives a gift, supports a friend, or loves their son or daughter. Whenever a character feels like something someone else has done to the is right or wrong, morality may be defining the positive or negative evaluation of that intention, action, or consequence.

In the last post concerning alignment, I mentioned that part of the system deals with morality. Both axis deal with morality and ethics.

Gaming Alignment two Axis

  • Lawful - deals with social order, rules, and laws that people should follow. Honor, trust, obedience to authority, and tradition.
  • Neutral - respect the authority, but not compelled to neither follow nor rebel against the rules and laws.
  • Chaotic - deals with the individual above society. freedom, adaptable, and flexible.

  • Good - right to life, dignity of being, and sacrifice to help others. Will help someone in need.
  • Neutral - against killing - but will not sacrifice to help others. Sacrifice requires commitments through relationships. Will help friends and family. May harm if need be.
  • Evil - harm, oppress, injure, or kill another; no compassion. Will harm other people.

Similarities of alignment and modern ethical systems
From the gaming alignment system, I see some connections with modern ethical systems and theories, which I list in the next section.

  • Chaotic is very similar to egoism
  • Lawful may be very similar to conventional ethical relativism, utilitarianism, contractarianism, and maybe some of the others like Kantian, divine command, or virtue ethics if connected with social rules and sacrifice for others.
  • Neutral seems closest to subjective ethical relativism.
  • Good or Evil maybe similar to objectivism, divine command, Kantian, virtue, rights-based, or even contractarianism ethics depending on the morality source.
  • Evil tends to be ethical egoism in classical good vs evil fantasy. This is where some selfish evil force has disregard for society and is attempting to rule the region, kingdom, and world.

In modern fiction, villians that are evil or bad need some small redeeming quality. They need some reason to be evil - they may become a sociopath. Statistics show that four percent of the population become sociopaths. Statistics show that one percent of people are born psychopath with a potential to become violent.

Here are a list of the major modern views or theories of ethics that characters and people may use to determine right and wrong. I provide a italized dialogue quote of what someone that follows such ethical way may say.

Modern views on morality

  • Subjective ethical relativism - right or wrong is a matter of personal opinion and individuality. No standard of right and wrong. "That's right for him/her/me."
  • Conventional ethical relativism - right or wrong is relative to each culture and society, based on what they believe is right or wrong. "That's right for them."
  • Ethical Objectivism - right or wrong is universal and objective relative to neither the individual nor society. "That's the right thing to do."
  • Divine Command - religion dictates what's right. "God commands you to do it right."
  • Ethical Egoism - people have the moral responsibility, obligation, or duty to do only what's right for their own self-interest. Putting someone else's interest before one's own is wrong. "I do what I need to do."
  • Utilitarianism - the right action produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. "That person must go for the others to have peace."
  • Kantian Ethics - right is determined by intent, reason, and type of action, not the consequence. "Tell the truth even if it causes harm."
  • Virtue Ethics - it's the character of the person not their actions or consequences that determines how right a person is. Virtues are traditional values.  "A good person would do this."
  • Rights-Based Ethics - if someone has a right, others are obligated to provide what the right requires. "I have the right to do it."
  • Contractarianism - right is determined by what everyone agreed upon in a social contract. "We agreed that this is right."

Now having listed the gaming and modern ethics systems, how do these systems work inside the characters. Freud developed the basis which includes a person's moral influence - the superego.

How does morality work in terms of the self

Sigmund Freud saw behavior - including morality - in terms of the id, superego, and ego.
  • id - set of instinctual trends; needs, wants, desires, impulses; pleasure and instant gratification; "what one wants to do"
  • superego - critic and moral; learned from parental type ideal models; "what one should do"
  • ego - realistic mediator between id and superego; rationalization; delay gratification of needs; judgement, uses defense mechanisms; "what one justifies to do"

Written chronologically, this functions may appear in that order: 1) id, 2) superego, 3) ego.

After something happens to the character, first instinct kicks in through physical instinct reaction and the physical sensations. These first reactions and sensations are connected to the subconscious (id) of the character. These brief flashes are a view into the what the character really wants. Many times readers don't find out what characters really want until later in the story. The character might not know what they really want, only that they react and feel a certain way. They just see brief hints in instinct reaction

Then emerges the emotional reaction, beginning with feelings connected to unconscious mind and then moves into internal dialogue and external comments about what has happened, mostly focusing on finding out what they should do (superego, morality) and, after internal conflict and possibly defense mechanisms kicking in, rationalize (ego) with what they probably will do.

Morality pushes characters in a direction they might not normally go instinctively.

As for defense mechanisms, I think they are fascinating. I wont go into details but here is a list of some of them.

Defense Mechanism Denial, displacement, intellectualisation, fantasy, compensation, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, undoing, suppression, dissociation, idealization, identification, introjection, inversion, somatisation, splitting, and substitution.

Having looked at morality systems and the internal process, where does morality come from? Gaming most likely only addresses this will a quick background summary. Most of the time background is used to gain benefits however.

How do people acquire morality in social and cultural settings?

How can you justify your characters behavior. Character backstory may help you know why your character acts in a certain manner. They may have experienced something at an earlier age or in a specific culture that explains their moral choices. This may be part of the backstory that is only hinted at and only the author knows.


Two theories of social learning are conditioning and through observation.
  • B. F. Skinner saw morality reflecting past conditioning of social reinforcements resulting from actions: The social reinforcements of rewards and punishments.
A story based on conditioning might show a setting where parents, teachers, mentor, employer, or society is trying to teach important lessons to the main characters, and where character conformity is rewarded and rebellion is punished. Besides conditioning, characters may learn by observing, reading, or listening to other's experience. They may begin to desire to copy someone else.
  • Albert Bandura saw learning, including morality, as the result of observation of model behavior and vicarious reinforcement (imagining the consequence of the person setting the examples rewards or punishment).
A story based on observation may have some sort of idealized and influential person that the character is trying to emulate. The character(s) try to follow in their footsteps. Besides learning morality from others, characters my learn morality on their own by battling their own self-concepts.

Individually - metamorphosis, transformation, or coming of age stories
For individual characters learning morality, experience, and need fulfillment may be through Maslow and Roger's humanistic progression. This is the idea that characters try to find the 'real self'. "I'm trying to find out who I really am," or "Now I finally feel like the real me," are two statements that fit withing the self-discovery system. Unlike the prior two, this is a journey of self discovery - not learning from others directly. This is a common method used for metamorphosis, transformation, or coming of age story types. It may even include story types a character creates their own ideal to try and reach. This branch of theories explains the emotions felt during that interaction of different selves.

Carl Rogers said that there is the real-self and the ideal self. When these two selves are far apart a person feels tension due to incongruence of the two. Edward Tory Higgins said that there are three selves: actual, ideal, and ought selves. Leon Festinger called self-discrepancies cognitive dissonance - conflicting values, beliefs, and ideas.

  1. actual (real) self is the person you think that you are.
  2. ideal self is the person someone would like you to be. Hopes and wishes.
  3. ought self is the person that you have the duty or obligation to be. 
Emotions Felt during the struggle of selves
When the character's actual self doesn't match someone else ideal image, the character can experience guilt. The other character may experience shame upon that character. When characters actual self doesn't match their own ideal, the character can experience disappointment and dissatisfaction.

When the character's actual self doesn't match someone else ought image, the character can experience anticipation of punishment. resentment, fear, threat, or social anxiety. When they don't match their own ought self, the character can experience self-dissatisfaction, self-punishment, self-contempt, uneasiness, guilt, and self-criticism depending on the character's moral system.

Lifespan Moral development

Finally, just to be complete, here are the developmental stages of morality during a person's life.

Jean Piaget who pioneered the field of child development.

Paiget Moral Development
  1. Motor Rules - under age 4
  2. Egocentric - age 4 to 7; Moral Realism (rules fixed, unchangeable, absolute) - guilt by breaking rule, not by intention
  3. Cooperation - age 7 to 10 or 11
  4. Legalism - After age 11; Moral Autonomy (rules arbitrary, changeable, formed by consent of fairness and equity)

Lawrence Kohlberg expanded Paiget's two moral stages and established a six stages of moral development

Good or Bad based on Consequence
  1. Obedience and Punishment 
  2. Self-interest - benefit to the self
Good or Bad based on Social Rules
  1. Conformity - approval
  2. Authority - duty
Good or Bad based on Social Benefit
  1. Social Contracts - mutual benefit, unjust laws must be changed
  2. Universal Ethics - common good

Next Post

All of this psychology and sociology was needed to fill in the gaps of where fiction writing techniques normally doesn't cover. The next major post may be on character needs. 


Action - the process or state of doing something, normally to achieve an goal
Behavior - the way one acts or conducts themselves
Motive - reason for behavior or action
Intention - goal or aim of behavior or action
Belief - acceptance of something is true or exists
Opinion - a view or judgement about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge
Right - morally good, justified, or acceptable
Wrong - immoral, unjust, or dishonorable
Guilty - culpable or responsible of wrongdoing
Innocent - not guilty of offense or wrongdoing

A Basic System 12 (ABS12)
Index of my blog

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