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A blogger with the name of Glen C. Strathy said the following:

The first and most important element of any plot is the Story Goal or Problem. This is the organizing idea around which the entire plot of your novel will be based.

Now, my problem is I want to try to create a character who is morally neutral, straight in the middle, but that restricts my ability to choose a good story goal for my novel.

Why? Well, I am not sure, but when I think of someone who is completely neutral (neither good or bad and right in the middle), I think of someone who only values his self-interest, because I am caught in this assumption that character who are neutral have to have this archetype, I can't really think of a good story goal.

Can these two objectives be reconciled, do you agree with my assumption, if not can you explain why, so I can pick a good story goal for my story while keeping my character as morally neutral as possible?

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    Serving self interest alone shades them more towards the dark side. According to Aristotle, vice was rooted in ignorance of the proper long term self interest created by virtue. Why would your character be so? Would he be a Gordon Gecco? – Rasdashan Mar 15 at 0:59
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    Basically every Ayn Rand novel…? – wetcircuit Mar 15 at 2:10
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    My problem here is "straight in the middle of what?". How do you define good and evil? There are many different answers for this. Many people think acting in self-interest is more evil than neutral, I disagree wholeheartedly, but it comes down to personal ethics. And that is fine; it's fine if you think your character is neutral, even if others think they are evil. But how you define your "neutral" is important for the answers we can give you. – PoorYorick Mar 15 at 12:27
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a character who is morally neutral, straight in the middle

when I think of someone who is completely neutral (neither good or bad and right in the middle), I think of someone who only values his self-interest

I'd suggest first identifying what makes a character morally 'bad' and morally 'good'. You mention self-interest, so let's start there:

morally bad: I am more important than anyone else, so I'll do anything to favour myself, even if it means hurting others (not necessarily physically).

This is the person who'll stab friends and co-workers in order to improve theit life, and who doesn't care at all for anyone else's problems - the only real problems are their own problems.

morally good: of course I am important, but definitely not at the expense of others and, besides, there are situations where my needs take second place in reference to others. Some people have such bad problems in their lives, that I barely have any problems at all in comparison.

This is the 'nice' person who'll always find a way to help out someone, whether it's a friend or a stranger. If they're contending for a promotion, they're very likely to praise their rival even if it can hurt their chances.

morally half-way: I'm important and I'll fight for my chances... but not at the expense of others. I'll also help others in need... but not at my expense.

This is the person who may feel the desire to help out a stranger, but that might cause them problems (eg. arrive late to work) so they carry on and hope someone else will stop to help. They'll do anything to get the promotion, but won't be really able to stab any work colleagues. Unless it's a stranger they don't even know and doesn't really exist in their mind. But it still feels a bit bad.

One can think of other characteristics and see how they change across the moral range. It helps if you can think of actual people who can exemplify the good, the bad, and the half-way.


Once you've done the step above, throw them in a situation and see how they act.

Scenario: Say that the three characters are waiting for the train and someone's briefcase falls down. Tens of paper sheets spread everywhere, wind picking them up and spreading them even farther. The three characters witness the briefcase owner's panic as they try to get the tens of paper sheets.

The bad thinks 'should have been more careful', and forgets the briefcase person.

The good will automatically start getting the paper sheets.

The half-way may hesitate, but will join the efforts.

The train comes in!

The bad goes in, intent on finding a seat.

The good may look at the train, fretting for a moment over missing it and being late... but will remain and help get all those paper sheets. The poor person is obviously in distress and who knows how much this can hurt them professionally! Being thirty minutes late is nothing in comparison.

The half-way will hesitate. They may even want to stay and help out, but we're talking a complete stranger here. Is this person really worth getting in trouble at work? They'll quickly hand in the paper sheets they've collected and board the train. As they watch the stressed briefcase person and another stranger helping them, the half-way will wish they could have stayed and helped. May even wish to be brave enough to do so.

If the bad happens to see the stranger helping the briefcase person despite missing the train, they'll probably scoff at the idiot.


In my experience, most people are flat in the middle of this 'moral' range. Then there are a few who'd sell their own parents if that meant a promotion, and the few who'd cut off a hand to help a friend in need.


Choosing a good story goal

Personally, I'd say to focus on the character and see what they want. What is their aim?

Then decide if you (as the author) want the character to succeed in reaching their aim, or if not reaching it will teach the character something important for their personal growth.

Let's say the MC's aim is to get a promotion, only a work colleague is also trying to get it. Then there's a situation where the MC could kick their rival out of the promotion race... Temptation! Do they have the guts (or are they mean enough) to do it? If so, could they face this colleague they'd never had problems with before?

In this scenario, neither the bad nor the good would hesitate: one with go for it, the other would be outraged at the idea. But the half-way... the half-way will hesitate. Will they do the honourable thing, or will they sell their soul?

  • And, of course, there are people willing to cut off a hand to help a friend, sell their own parents if it meant a promotion, and also hesitate a lot at the briefcase but want to help. Or any mixture. Generally, any example of morality I can think of depends less on 'morality' and more on that individuals priorities. Personally I find an 'evil' character with close friends they'd do anything for very compelling. :) – Onyz Mar 15 at 13:06
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A purely self-interested character may be morally neutral, or morally evil, depending on how that self-interest is expressed and acted on. But there are other ways to be morally neutral. A person devoted to a particular cause may be morally neutral. An artist, say totally devoted to his or here art, or a critic devoted to exploring somne genre of art. An engineer devoted to maximizing the efficiency of the devices s/he works on, or a scientist devoted to explicating some puzzle in nature, and not caring at all how this is funded. The character Krug, in Robert Silverberg's Tower of Glass is morally neutral, but not primarily self-interested, for example.

Interesting stories might be told about such a neutral, devoted or even obsessed character. For the matter of that, very interesting stories might be told about a person who is purely self-interested and amoral. How does this self-interest affect others. Does the character's view of life change. Does s/he achieve his or her self-interested goals.

The character Parker , protagonist and viewpoint character of a series of 24 novels by Donald Westlake is completely amoral and self-interested, not at first caring even for his close associates, nor expecting them to care for him. At timers he even appears to be a sociopath. Yet many readers are absorbed by the stories, and may well sympathize with this anti-hero.

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I think there are subtle differences between "not caring what is right or wrong" and "only caring about myself" and "only caring about my own interests".

A "self-interested" person sounds like somebody that can't love, or even have friends they care about. But a morally neutral character CAN love somebody. Just because they don't have morals about "right and wrong" does not mean they don't have emotions.

Consider my dog. Dogs are entirely emotional creatures. They have no morals (at least nothing remotely like human morals); they will fight, bite and kill a stranger dog that threatens them or anybody they love, even over a worthless toy. They do not feel guilty over hurting or killing.

But dogs are filled with emotion; they love their family, they love to play, they will risk their lives to protect or save their family without a second thought.

Dogs are not entirely self-interested. Dogs belong in a family, they love their family, and will kill for their family, and will die protecting their family. Right or wrong, no matter what their family member has done, because they do not distinguish between right and wrong actions.

Ramp that personality up to human intelligence, and you have a morally neutral character that is not 100% self-interested. They just regard right and wrong as rules imposed on them by outside larger forces beyond their control; so like my dog they largely obey these external rules (or for humans, are very intentional in getting away with circumventing them so they don't get punished and taken from their family).

Then you also have by this dynamic a built-in story goal. The MC can want something for her family, perhaps for her friends she considers part of her "pack". (My dog has many dog-friends in the neighborhood.) In order to get it, she has no qualms about doing (what the rest of us would consider) wrong things. Kind of like the Vikings on the TV show: You are in their tribe, or an ally, or an enemy that must be attacked, or you are worthless and can be robbed and killed without a second thought.

It doesn't have to be that she enjoys the things she does. Metaphorically speaking all she sees is an obstacle she cannot walk around, so she attacks it. Burns it, shoots it, stabs it, or pushes it over. And unlike a dog, she is smart enough to anticipate reactions and do this without getting punished for breaking the rules.

Like all good characters, your morally neutral character can be driven by love, not self-interest, and she doesn't have to be selfish. Her sense of "right and wrong" is 100% whether it "helps or harms" the people she personally loves. Nothing higher than that.

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    +1 for the excellent dog analogy. "Who's a morally neutral boy? You! Yes you are!" – PoorYorick Mar 15 at 13:12

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