The Write Stuff: Moral red lines

By David Flin

I confess that this particular article has been inspired by my recent reading of half of a book. It was one of those “realistic” books, where the hero has to bend the rules to get a positive outcome. I’m not going to reference the specific book; I’ve no intention of doing anything that might gain the author additional royalties.

It was a situation where the central character faces a number of situations, and takes morally questionable actions when faced with those situations. Every reader will have their own moral red lines, although these will be drawn in different places. Once a character crosses one of those red lines, they’ve become a villain as far as the reader is concerned. Furthermore, crossing such a red line is a moral event horizon. There’s no coming back. Once you have crossed this, the story becomes one where the reader wants the antagonist to win, or at least, for there to be mutual destruction.

Once the red line has been crossed for the reader, there is no point talking about redemption arcs, or greatest good, or anything like that. Don’t expect to be able to present mitigating circumstances to rescue the situation. It can be done, but the mitigation has to be significant. Internal grief over a lost loved one isn’t going to come close. Essentially, you have to demonstrate that the character had no autonomy in the matter, and was forced by some form of control.

In a pre-Watchmen sequence, the Comedian claims that you can’t cross a line, because there is no line to cross. Torture, mass-murder of innocents, there is nothing that the character wouldn’t do to achieve his objective. The end justifies the means. He’s wrong.

Different readers will have different red lines. Let me repeat, once that red line is crossed, there’s no coming back. The only satisfying end for that reader is the death of the protagonist who crossed that red line.

The death of the protagonist can give a satisfying tale. Macbeth, for example, murders King Duncan when Duncan was a guest. That broke many taboos and red lines, and from that moment, the only satisfying end to the tale was the death of Macbeth.

What sorts of things can act as red lines? Torture is one, possibly. For me, the killing of innocent bystanders is a clear-cut red line. Sexual violence will be a red line for many. Killing children may cross a line. Most people would regard attempts at genocide to be a clear moral event horizon issue.

With one exception, there is no point in explaining why any of these are morally wrong. Anyone who can’t see that is a moral vacuum. The one exception I am making is for torture, and that is to correct a common misconception regarding the practicality of torture as a means of gaining information.

It doesn’t work. Even aside from the immorality of torture, it doesn’t work. These modern thrillers such as 24, where the heroes are in a race against time to discover the terrorists’ dastardly plot, and reluctantly decide they have to use torture to get information? If a realistic outcome were followed, the heroes would get nothing until the breaking point, and then they would get a flood of stuff, when the person being tortured starts saying anything to make the torture stop. Everyone they’ve ever known is a terrorist, every place they’ve ever stayed at is a bomb factory, everywhere they’ve been in the last month is a target. The information gained is worthless, because it’s not information, but just whatever the person thinks might stop the agony. Any name, any location, anything. Invariably, the heroes are portrayed as resorting to torture because they are in a race against time, and what they would get would give them more false information than they can process.

After a time, the person being tortured can no longer distinguish truth from fiction, and any further questioning is a waste of time because of that.

Having been waterboarded (many years ago), this misrepresentation of what can be gained practically from torture annoys me.

However, the practicality, or lack thereof, of these moral red lines is actually beside the point. It doesn’t matter if something is effective or not if it is just plain wrong.

From a pure writing point of view, eliminating moral qualms from the protagonist eliminates the whole field of moral dilemma from the story. If the hero has no qualms about innocent bystanders getting killed in the crossfire, then there’s no tension when innocent bystanders are around.

Yes, but … Quite often, authors will defend protagonists doing awful things by saying that there are reasons in the character background why immoral behaviour is understandable, or that the end justifies the means.

Nope. Once that red line is crossed, the reader isn’t going to listen to any justification afterwards. All that is available is possible redemption, and that redemption will come with a big price tag.

And yet … And yet these types of story keep coming out. It sometimes feels like the hero who has some moral scruples is a thing of the past. If you include heroes torturing people to find information as a drinking game in 24, you’ll discover the meaning of the phrase “alcohol poisoning”.

It’s unquestionably a conundrum. The short explanation for the conundrum is one that every writer needs to remember: target readership. It’s something I constantly tell budding writers about. Work out who your target audience is, and write for them.

If your target readership isn’t interested in questions of right and wrong, and is focused on the protagonists kicking antagonist butt, then that’s what you should write about. I personally feel that such an approach misses a lot of interesting potential story lines, but the only story lines that matter are those liked by the author and the target readership.

Discuss this article

David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow