Whether you’re making up a complete world whole-cloth or putting your characters in some version of our own, it’s always good to know what your characters value. Values and morals make up a critical part of any person or character’s personality, and are often not only the source of the most interesting parts of them, but can also become an endless goldmine of conflict.
Everybody has morality. Even though most people think “the Church Lady” when they think “morality,” the more honest definition is simply that of a person’s moral code–what that person values or considers good, versus what that person considers bad or evil or wrong…and how they react to its presence.
To me, few things could be more fun than playing “what if” with Family Values (TM). And not just because I like to have a little fun exploding the heads of people who try to co-opt values to fit a single, narrow definition that they themselves don’t even follow. I’m talking about real “what if” questions that do the heavy lifting of figuring out why we value what we value (and what we really value versus what we say we value) in our own world.
Presenting a world where the societal norms are different from ours allows us to draw parallels and examine our own society in a context somewhat independent of our own value system. We all carry our own worldview filters, whose “default” setting is on our own cultural norms. In order to examine those cultural norms outside our filters, we have to present a world with cultural norms that are comparable to the ones we hold, yet not the same. We hold up a distorted, fun-house mirror that shows us more truth than we think…if we’ve done it properly.
But even if you’re not creating a world from scratch, morality and values still play a part in your storytelling. Among your characters, you’ll have characters with similar values…and characters whose values clash. Oftentimes, a shared value or moral outlook plays a part in your story’s theme. Because it is important to the characters, it becomes significant to the way you tell the story.
Values are a goldmine of truth-in-distortion. Every writer knows the old adage “show, don’t tell” and nowhere is that more obvious–and useful–than in displaying a character’s values. It’s very easy to declare our heroic alpha male “a good man” or whatever…but without showing his goodness, nobody’s going to buy him. But…and here’s where the real fun of writing comes in. See, in real life, when people speak of their values, they also just as often fall into the “show, don’t tell” trap. People claim to hold certain values all the time, but when it comes to showing, their actions speak louder than their words.
In people, this makes for hypocrisy in the worst cases, and confusion in the best. But in fiction, this makes for utterly fabulous internal conflict. Especially if a character is aware that his or her values aren’t in line with their actions. Then…it gets fun.