Written by JJ Barnes
The Protagonist of your story is likely to be the goodie, so you might write them with moral purity. They’re the person you root for, the person you are invested in. Your story starts when your Protagonist becomes active in pursuit of a goal, and is resolved when they get it (or accept they cannot have it).
I’ll be talking you through the problem with moral purity, and alternatives that might work better.
What Is Moral Purity?
Moral purity means a character is someone who is completely innocent. A character that never hurts anyone, is never selfish or reckless. Someone who never does anything wrong. In theory, these are the perfect qualities for a Protagonist.
Your audience won’t want to root for somebody who hurts people. A selfish reckless person who makes terrible choices isn’t the kind of Protagonist your audience will invest in. They’re the people we want to see fail, not the people we ride along with in the hopes they get what they want.
The Problem With Moral Purity
However appealing moral purity might seem on the surface, because no real person is actually morally pure, if your Protagonist is, they won’t read as real.
If we can see ourselves, both our good qualities and our flaws, in a Protagonist, we relate to them. We hope for them to get what they want, despite their flaws, because we hope for ourselves too. A real person will captivate the attention because their circumstances and life are more believable.
Even though everybody knows your story isn’t real, it’s fiction that’s the point, it still has to FEEL real. Believability is important because the moment your story feels fake, your audience won’t care as much. Because your characters are the main draw of your story, if they don’t feel real, it will impact the rest of the story too. No real person is perfect, so no character should be either.
Alternative Characterisation Techniques
For a flawed character to still be likeable and worthy of your audience’s personal investment, they need to be working on self improvement. This means that when they hurt someone, they acknowledge it and try to make amends. When they make mistakes they try to fix them.
The arc of a bad character is different. This would usually be the Antagonist, but an Antagonist doesn’t have to be a bad person. So this would be for a story villain. When a bad character hurts someone, it’s either intentional or they don’t care that it happened. They don’t take steps to make amends. Mistakes are blamed on others and acting selfishly isn’t something they seek to improve about themselves.
Whilst your good character shouldn’t arc from flawed to morally pure, they are on a journey of improvement. They are learning and recognising errors and trying to be better. They aren’t trying to act in a selfish or cruel way, but when they do, they are regretful. For an audience to care about them and believe they deserve to get what they want, that is all you need.
Instead of moral purity, aim for moral improvement. This keeps your characters interesting, believable, and worth investing in. Your audience will care about your story enough to see if through to the end.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose