Morality in Fiction

What’s the moral of the story? It’s a question you probably left behind in high school, sometimes because the morals are obvious (“well I’m all broken up about that man’s rights“), more often because that’s not why you came to the story in question (“there is no spoon“). I didn’t pay it much mind for years, but recently it’s been getting my attention. I’ll just lay out the thoughts in their own paragraphs, whether they reach a conclusion or not…

Today I first thought of the subject while remembering this Monday’s episode of Supergirl. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it yet. In the episode, she’s exposed to red kryptonite, which in the Berlantiverse is the “make u eevil” kryptonite. Naturally, she wears black and acts sassy, causes random destruction, and so on. This wasn’t a very thoughtful script though it was slightly better by the last minutes of the show.

But there was one villainous act by Supergirl that made me think. She lets a villain escape early in the episode. Her reasoning is that he is no challenge and not worth fighting, but that seemed flimsy to me. It was probably the best they could come up with for justifying an action that really didn’t make much sense, was just there to prove she had turned naughty.

supergirl in her evil incarnation

Screen capture of Melissa Benoist as Supergirl, property of CBS… or fucken whoever

What I was thinking is that it might be cool to see if red kryptonite Kara has some kind of morality. We all have morality that comes from a combination of society, environment, and our natural inclinations. As social animals, we are all compelled to have relationships with each other, though like everything in nature this varies in degree and expression by millions of complicating factors. Even fictional evil characters usually have some kind of social impulse, even if it’s just world domination. So what is red Kara’s?

Did she let him go because on some level she sensed that bad guys are her people? Was she thinking she might make a flunky out of him some day, or that she just naturally had more sympathy for destructive alien brutes? It might be fun for the show to revisit the scenario using alternate realities or more red kryptonite and see if that version of the character has something more interesting going on, besides living down to a stereotype.

And now for something completely different: The Walking Dead. I cannot watch these shows anymore (TWD and FtWD), as compelling as the perpetual danger and lovely actors may be. I just started watching them in early spring 2015 and quit fall of the same year. It took an embarrassingly long time to do so, but I figured out what was bothering me about them. Both shows have the exact same moral, playing out the exact same way, over and over and over again.

glenn from the walking dead, gagged and about to be murdered

Screen capture of Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead, property of AMC, or fucken whoever

If it was a moral I agreed with, that might not be a problem. But I disagree with it powerfully. It’s the underpinning of so much of what’s wrong with America – trust no one, everyone’s trying to get over, fuck them before they fuck you. Some of you might disagree that’s what they’re communicating, but it really is.

The show, just like America itself, makes exceptions for those close to you, based on closeness. Trust no one (except your family), and so on. On the show it’s the people you know the best – your enclave / faction / posse, whatever – that can be trusted, and everyone else is wrong, dangerous, deluded, or even a cannibal. IRL America, it’s your family first, and everyone else is trying to steal your tax dollars or make your children gay or whatever. And if you must stand in solidarity with someone outside your doors, it’s your race or gender first, everyone else is out to take your jobs, or trick or rob you, or terrorism on you, or try to reverse the situation so that white menz become the most oppressed group evarrrrr.

This plays out in our economy as a situation of total desperation, just a gigantic pile of everyone screwing everyone, the Hobbesian war of all against all. It hurts us emotionally and physically. It’s felt the most by poor people, but can be seen clearly at every level of our society if you know what you’re looking at. It really doesn’t have to be this way; it’s just the same overwhelming fear of the Other that drives the plots of Walking Dead shows along their inexorable crappy path.

Lastly, role-playing games.

cover of old dungeons & dragons book, features an archer, a wizard, and a dragon

Cover of 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons book, once property of TSR, probably Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro now

So-called “pen and paper” role-playing games still, after decades of existence, still haven’t achieved the kind of cultural saturation where they can be discussed without a bit of explanation. Short version – it’s playing pretend like small children do, except with rules on paper, and actions described rather than physically performed. It’s something I’ve spent entirely too much time doing. One person (the game master / GM) manages the world and describes all of its inhabitants (non-player characters / NPCs) except for the characters created by the players (player characters / PCs).

Since the dawn of this hobby in the late seventies, it’s been well known that PCs are often horrible, despicable people. A GM can describe a lovely meadow with a peaceful cow in it, and a typical PC’s first instinct is to fight the cow or light the whole thing on fire. You know how some christians say that if there was no god to create morality, everyone would go around raping, murdering, and robbing each other? That’s player character morality in a nutshell.

On a personal level, I’ve never felt this. I can understand it in principle. The world of imagination is largely consequence free. Even if a character is punished for their crimes in game, you don’t feel that as the player. Likewise if your imagination sucks, the fictional victims of your fictional crimes are faceless, just so many words, supremely easy to ignore.

Why would this be someone’s fantasy? Not all gamers are antisocial jerkbags, but a disproportionate number play as such. I can relate to using fantasy as wish fulfillment. For me, that’s having cool powers, being able to fight jerks, etc. For a lot of people, it’s stacking coins and killing anyone who looks at you funny.

There’s a LOT more I could say about people being shitty at RPGs, but it starts to get off topic. The main point here: PCs, NPCs, they are fictional creations, but the morality within their stories shouldn’t be total garbage. That’s my feeling and it’s the same for any other fiction I involve myself with, passively (books, TV, movies) or actively (writing, RPGs). What do you like to see in fiction and how do you play?



  1. johnhodges says

    In the original D&D manuals, there were some cartoons in the margins. One showing a post-battle scene with the players flattened, battered, embedded in the stone wall, otherwise badly injured or dead, one standing with tattered armor and broken sword, in front of a dead Balrog, saying “See, guys! Balrogs ain’t so tough! WE WON!” One showing an underground corridor with some construction workers in hardhats, with sawhorses, lanterns, traffic cones, and so forth, and a sign “DUNGEON UNDER CONSTRUCTION: KEEP OUT!” One that I think is relevant to discussions of morality: a room with a knight, a wizard, a thief, and a cleric gathered around a table, opening a box labeled PAPERS AND PAYCHECKS, the wizard explaining “It’s a game; we pretend we are all workers and students in an advanced industrial society.” The Walking Dead and the worlds of RPG games are not societies where there is the rule of law, or even ordinary civil peace, where farmers and artisans and merchants ply their trades and try to raise families. Nobody is even trying to defend a territory in which there is “peace, order, and good government.” They are war zones, lawless areas where gangs, mostly small gangs , are trying to hack and slash their way to the nearest treasure. Morality applies only within the gang.

  2. Yellow Thursday says

    As a GM in an RPG (Gamma World), I recently had to let a player know that I was not ok with him raping a captured enemy. I figured out a way to do it in-game, but I have not been comfortable having him at the table since.

    I was also disappointed when half of my players said they wanted to make evil characters for a different campaign.

  3. dianne says

    A GM can describe a lovely meadow with a peaceful cow in it, and a typical PC’s first instinct is to fight the cow or light the whole thing on fire.

    This is partly because the players know that they’re in an adventure game and the cow is likely to turn out to be an evil attack cow who will eat you instead of vice versa if you give it a chance. Of course, a rabbit would be even worse.

  4. Great American Satan says

    Yeeeah… Not interested. Also, not all fictional settings are war zones, and not all conflicts necessitate turning into the most disgusting version of what a man is supposed to be. Certainly not fictional conflicts. In fiction, righteousness, willpower, and a little magic can win out against overwhelming odds. IRL, the best tactic against more powerful enemies is terrorism. Not what I’m looking to fiction for.

  5. Great American Satan says

    Big time. It’s not like I expect people to play paladin morals. Lately my D&D games are mostly Neutral. But if there’s something I would never forgive a person for IRL, I’d rather my players weren’t having their characters do it in game.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    What do you like to see in fiction and how do you play?

    I’m taking that usual trope, and putting it on its head, subverting it hard. I’m playing a lawful good, stupid good, character inspired by silver age comic book heroes. I’ve been going out of my out-of-combat in RP and in-combat to avoid killing people, giving enemies a chance to surrender, etc.

    To other readers, there is another usual trope that the party is just there for the loot and treasure, and not to help anyone. I’m also subverting that hard. I’ve already spent a shitton of party loot on saving NPCs, and not just any NPCs, but NPCs from the evil organization that just tried to kill us several sessions ago.

    Just a few nights ago, in the last session, I almost released an evil demon into the world, because it pretended to be reformed, and I would have trusted it (see stupid good and good cannot comprehend evil). Thankfully, my trusty sidekick Bearsy Bearington stopped me in time from committing that horrible mistake.

    Playing this character is a blast!

  7. says

    I think about the same questions in confronting fiction all the time.

    When it comes to RPG’s, though, I guess I had a better crew back in the day. We had a player or two who would run a character with questionable ethics, although even they had their own ethics (like you ponder for red Kara), and other players ran characters with values, and interesting moral conflict resulted within the game.

    I actually never liked D&D. Its play system was awkward and limited, and its scoring system was based on murder and theft. I played far more frequently Palladium, which had its own issues, but at least its scoring system for leveling up was based on good roleplaying and heroic action. Thus motivating both.

    Other games had different systems of reward. In Call of Cthulhu, you improved a skill by using it. There was no other form of advancement (other than gradually going insane, which gave you advantageous insights into the bleak alien horrors of reality, until it didn’t anymore). In the original Warhammer Fantasy RPG (which most people have forgotten about), you gained experience points only for achieving scenario goals (so the GM could thus decide what those are) and good roleplaying of your character.

    We so much preferred those systems, that we started adapting them to other RPGs, and just running them on the same advancement rules.

    Thus proving the adage that it isn’t just the artist who decides the meaning and impact of their art.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I actually never liked D&D. Its play system was awkward and limited, and its scoring system was based on murder and theft. I played far more frequently Palladium, which had its own issues, but at least its scoring system for leveling up was based on good roleplaying and heroic action. Thus motivating both.

    Meh. The criteria by which one levels up / gains experience / improves abilities is easily changed by DM fiat and group agreement. That rule is a very small part of the system, and it’s loosely coupled, and thus easily replaced. Thus, I never really understood that complaint of D&D from actual gamers.

  9. Great American Satan says

    I know it’s the name of the trope, but I’d like people to avoid the use of “stupid” and its synonyms in my comment section. Something to keep in mind for future comments. Glad you’re having fun in your games though.

  10. Great American Satan says

    Oh snap, Mr. C. You got no-true-gamer’d! EL, that may be a bit more punchy than it needs to be.

    I admit, most of the time my players haven’t been that horrible either, but it would’ve bloated my word count and diluted the point to get more specific. When they do go astray, it’s pretty much as described.

    I was a Palladium die-hard for a long time, though dallying with other games. West End Games’ old Star Wars RPG was the first game to break me out of that completely – showed me a system could be more simple and still fun. I still have all my Palladium books though. I don’t know that it shows, but they influenced me a lot as an artist. I especially loved Larry MacDougall’s art in “Further Adventures in The Northern Wilderness.”

    Like EL, I ignore or house rule parts of a system that don’t work for me. I’ve been doing D&D (Pathfinder) lately for the cultural history of it, the prior familiarity of players. That’s after spending most of my RP for years in forum-based free-form play, and the bookkeeping is pretty damned annoying, I have to admit.

    I could say more on topic about morality, but maybe I’ll save it for future posts. I have too many stories.

  11. says

    Oh, indeed!

    Hence my last line said just that.

    The only reason we didn’t retool D&D that way for ourselves was that it had too many other flaws to bother fixing that way. We just used other systems we liked better. And retooled them (if necessary).

  12. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Indeed. I have fond memories of D&D 3.5, but I can see the plethora of flaws. In my spare time, I’m doing what all hardcore RPGers seem to do: Make my own system from scratch.

  13. says

    Yeah. Systems from scratch! That does tend to happen to the old dogs of RPG yore. 🙂

    I do that a lot, too. I’ve also adapted the obscure but elegantly simple Over the Edge rules to just about any universe. I prefer it by far to GURPS which everyone seems to love for some reason. Although I’ve envied the card play that operates Torg and Deadlands (both in very different ways). I’ve toyed with improvised variants but none I’ve tested much.

    I think we all do stuff like that.

    Although some systems have a unique and unreplicable aesthetic feel I just have to play nostalgically from time to time, and not tinker with overmuch. Call of Cthulhu and the old Warhammer system, for example.

    But we have gotten way off subject by now.

    I’ll get us back on track by quoting something I once wrote tangentially related to this post:

    [W]hat a scene looks to be saying is not necessarily what it is saying. Art is complex, even when it’s not trying to be. I remember someone I knew back in middle school who idolized a character in the film Apocalypse Now: Lt. Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall, who utters the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”). He modeled himself after him, dressed like him, talked like him, spoke of him reverently as a kick-ass soldier, his ideal hero. The disturbing thing about that (for those who haven’t seen the movie) is that Kilgore is a grotesque character, he is meant to horrify the viewer. He was specifically written as a metaphor for exactly the kind of stiff-backed war-idolizing lunatic who causes and perpetuates unjust wars like that in Vietnam, men who are never touched by any sense of danger or loss, who puff their chest with exaggerated superiority, who utter such absurd racist patriotisms as “Charlie don’t surf!” This kid didn’t get the joke. He was inspired by that movie to become the very thing it was criticizing.

    Which, as I go on to note, is no fault of the artist.

    This is why I think we should teach people in high school the skills needed to understand art better. Precisely so they can get, or think about, the moral of a story–whether the moral was intended by the artist or not, but especially when it is. Critical Thinking in Art should be as crucial as Statistics for Citizens. But our school systems generally teach neither.

  14. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    EL, that may be a bit more punchy than it needs to be.

    K… Maybe I’ll just refrain from posting here, considering that I don’t understand how I might have been out of line…

  15. Great American Satan says

    “Actual gamers” sounded a bit like a personal swipe, like Mr. C isn’t a real gamer. Which is less of a big deal since he’s a fellow white guy & it’s not like you can gatekeep him out of pretty much anything, but depending on the person, could be fightin’ words. I’d rather not see fights here.

    I’ll post a comment policy some time tonight. If you feel like skipping on my blog, no problem. It doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother you.

  16. Great American Satan says

    Well said and accurate, just the same note I gave EL earlier: Regarding “war-idolizing lunatic,” I’d like to see if we can avoid synonyms for “stupid” and “crazy” on this blog. As for the system stuff, hahaha, we’re in some nerd soup.

  17. silverfeather says

    As a female gamer who has sat at many tables I can say with certainty – the GMs are often just as bad as the PCs. Funny how in a fantasy world that could be anything I always seemed to find myself in a male dominated society populated with buxom bar wenches, damsels in distress, and of course the many powerful men who would actually get things done and change the world. White men, of course.

    In one game many years ago, the GM was so put off by the fact that I wanted to play a female Fighter and not some type of Cleric or Mage that he gave my character a brutal rape back story to explain (I assume to himself) why a woman would be so motivated to pick up a sword. Ugh. I never went back to that table.

    It took me years to surround myself with amazing, thoughtful, empathetic gamers – but it has been completely worth the work. They are better storytellers, they craft more interesting worlds, and they create multi-layered characters. D&D night finally feels like being an influential part of an engaging story and not like being the T&A sidekick in the Transformers movie. (Apologies to anyone who actually liked Transformers, hehe)

  18. surlymisanthrope says

    Looking back through the lens of social justice is still new practice for me. I have no doubt there was a lot of oppressive heteronormativity and casual misogyny in my gaming groups, but for the most part the people we gamed with at least tended towards creating characters motivated to “do good” rather than the other. We tended to engage in adventures with heroic goals rather than selfish ones.

    As for shows and films in the Zombie genre, I gave up on Walking Dead after maybe 2 seasons and a premiere. I remember scoffing at my aunt when she stopped watching criminal procedurals on network television because the crimes were just getting too awful, but now I’m heading in that direction myself. Along with tWD, I also gave up on Sons of Anarchy for the same reason. I get enough exposure to the sickest side of humanity when I accidentally read the top comment on a YouTube video or a political news item on Facebook; I don’t need to immerse myself in it recreationally.

  19. dianne says

    I’ve never actually played D&D. Too mainstream. I prefer geekier games. (Of course, this attitude is why I was one of the early play testers on what ended up being a GURPS game, make of that what you will.)

  20. Great American Satan says

    silver – I’ve definitely heard this before. Personally I seldom had a lady-identified individuals in my circle of friends until after I got hip about sexism, so it didn’t come up, but still… Probably because we were pretty off-putting from the start. I can’t know.

    surly – Nice, and agreed. I never did watch Sons of Anarchy, good to know I can safely skip it.

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Thanks for your explanation.

    In response, I note that I said “Thus, I never really understood that complaint of D&D from actual gamers.” Taken at face value, I said that I do not understand this complaint when coming from actual, real, actual gamers. Taken at face value, I am stating that I do not understand the complaint. Further, I am stating that I do not understand the complaint when coming from an actual gamer. Thus, in context, the face value meaning is that Carrier is an actual gamer, and I do not understand the complaint when it comes from an actual gamer like Carrier. In particular, I did not use the phrasing “no actual gamer would say that”. Instead, I said “I don’t understand why an actual gamer would say that”. You have to go way beyond the obvious face-value meaning in order to arrive at this insult that you see. You have to assume that I was being passive-aggressive or something. You have to apply zero principle of charity.

    Further, it seems that you were triggered by my use of a word, and immediately went to it being a negative, whereas I was using it as a positive to accurately describe Carrier.

    I feel that I am being afforded zero principle of charity, and you’re on a tear on your new blog to look for any possible thing that causes undue offense, and to stamp it out. While it is very important to police one’s own words to ensure that no accidental offense is caused, this particular nit rises above and beyond what I consider reasonable or practical.

    Similarly, it is also important for a blog owner to police their blog.

    And of course, a blog owner is entirely free to run their blog in their own way.

    However, in your seeming zealous attempt to make sure everyone feels welcome, you are making me like I have to walk on egg-shells to an extent that I find unpalatable, and that makes me feel unwelcome. In addition, the extreme lack of principle of charity displayed also makes me feel unwelcome. In addition, I feel very uncomfortable if I am expected to obey this level of preemptive screening in order to ensure that I don’t trigger anyone, or accidentally insult anyone with a “hidden” meaning of what I state, etc.

    In full sincerity, until you explained yourself, I had no idea what you were talking about. I also fully expect that Carrier did not take away the meaning that you gave, and I also fully expect that almost all readers would not take away the meaning that you gave.

    And finally, one of the most important reasons why I participate in online discussions is in order challenge myself, my own ideas, and to challenge the ideas of others. Am I right that you do not want heated discussions and arguments here? Is that what you mean by fighting? Then it seems that this particular blog is not the place for me. It seems that I will have to take you up on your generous offer to not post here.

    I wish you and your blog the best.

    Good day.

  22. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Oh, I see another possibility. Is it that you mean to communicate that any and all use of the term “actual gamer” is automatically a kind of micro-aggression by appealing to a particular cultural standard by which people are often made to feel excluded, especially women? Fascinating. I didn’t think of that possibility.

    A person with only a cursory knowledge of D&D might wrongly believe that killing monsters to gain experience points and loot is an inherent and intrinsic property of D&D 3.5. Thus, I can understand why someone unfamiliar with D&D might say that, and why I would not understand why someone familiar with D&D might say that.

    I was using the term “actual gamer” to describe that difference. I was using the term “actual gamer” to describe someone who has played the game and is familiar with the game. I suppose I could use other terms to describe the same thing, but I think that it is impossible for me to express myself on this point without using terms that can be used in a wrongly-exclusionary way. In order to express my reasonable point, I do need to make a distinction between people who actually have played the game, and people who haven’t. I am not going to stop using real concepts – people familiar with the game vs people not familiar with the game – in the process of expressing myself in a reasonable fashion, on the off fear that someone might apply zero principle of charity and assume I’m being sarcastic, passive aggressive, or on the off fear that I might trigger someone by referring to concepts which in other contexts are used in a wrongly-exclusionary way. IMHO, it’s like objecting to using the term “black people” because in other contexts, other people use the term “black people” in an exclusionary way.

    Regardless, it’s been fun though. Fascinating conversation, even if it’s a conversation with only me.

  23. Great American Satan says


    Am I right that you do not want heated discussions and arguments here? Is that what you mean by fighting? Then it seems that this particular blog is not the place for me.

    Heated discussions and arguments maybe sometimes, though it’s not my preference. It’s not exactly what I mean by fighting. I’m thinking of when people make it personal, ad hominems and the like. In some comment sections, everyone is hashing things out with boisterous debate. In others, they’re expressing solidarity and relating their personal experiences with the topic at hand, or offering polite correction to the OP or other commenter’s mistakes.

    I definitely prefer the latter experience, you seem to prefer the former. Especially with a view to my comment policy, I can understand why you’d feel like you’re walking on eggshells and not want to hang around here. Regarding the rest of your comments, I haven’t seen anything too disagreeable. I don’t have a problem with your feeling and am not expressing recrimination in suggesting you may be more comfortable elsewhere. Or if you feel like it’s worth the eggshell walk to comment only rarely, that’s fine too.

  24. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    (Flat comments, yay!)

    One last thing: I was wrong. I was talking it over with a friend, and they explained it to me. In particular, I was surprised at their immediate conflation of “I do not understand X” with the meaning “I believe that X is false”. From that, the meaning to the audience then becomes “I believe that no actual gamer would say that”. I should have said “I accept that you have played the game extensively, and I do not understand why anyone who has played the game extensively would say that”. But even then, my friend cautioned me that I still might be interpreted in a passive-aggressive manner, again where the audience has the understanded meaning that I am claiming that Carrier does not have extensive experience playing the game.

    I am socially incompetent, and I apologize for everything that I have done in this thread. I still genuinely am puzzled at how I could express this in a way that is not prone to these particular problems. I will work on it.

    I am still miffed that “I do not understand” has fallen prey to the politeness euphemism treadmill and gained the meaning “I believe that it is false”, just like “I do not believe” is often used as a euphemism to mean “I believe that it is false”.


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