Turning the Ethical Upside-Down


Last week we talked about ethical situations in speculative fiction, and how they appear even when we might not be intending to write about them.  Everything our characters do is dependent on their ethical beliefs, and when they make a move that conflicts with those beliefs, it needs to be hard for them and important to the story, or it just won’t feel valid. 

Have you ever read a book review in which the reviewer complains that the protagonist behaved stupidly?  It’s annoying to read something and know that the character we’re most connected to isn’t being smart.  Sometimes it’s not that the character was actually stupid, but that he has done something that didn’t fit with his behavior up to that point.  It generally means the author needed something specific to happen in her story and couldn’t think of a better way to drive things forward.  If you’re in this sort of predicament with your characters, it might be time to slow down and think about exactly what they would or would not do.  So let’s try an exercise.  Write the  scene as you planned to initially.  Once you’re finished, open up another file and rewrite the scene, only this time, make the character choose the other option.  For example, here’s a partial scene from Mad Kestrel:

          She and McAvery had climbed into a longboat to be rowed to shore.  She’d only looked back once, shuddering at the disorienting feeling of knowing that there was a ship where none could be seen.

     “Don’t you think it would be wiser to unchain me, at least for the space of the rowing?” He jingled the manacles at his wrists in emphasis.  “If I were to fall out, I’d sink right to the bottom of the bay.”

     “Don’t tempt me.” 

     He leaned back against the gunwale, propping his shackled feet up and resting his chained hands in his lap.  The plant sat next to him.  “About this bounty hunter you’re afraid of.  Is he a Danisoban himself?  A Factor?”

     “I don’t know.  But he told his masters about me.  Once we get Binns back, I’ll have to stay onboard ship from now on.  It’s the only place I’m safe.”

     “Unless he’s an ordinary person.  Or someone special, like you.”

     “How did you know about me?”

     He shrugged.  “Everyone knows what a Danisoban safe house is.”

     What else did everyone know that she didn’t?  It was frustrating to feel so stupid about the world she lived in. 

     “You escaped even though you were dunked in salt water.  Makes you special.  I can guess why the Brotherhood would pay well for you.  If they knew you were in possession of the sanguina, they’d be pissing themselves to lay hands on you both.”…

     McAvery stayed quiet for the remainder of the trip to shore, but Kestrel could feel his eyes staring holes into her.  She’d kept him at arm’s length since that dreadful evening in her cabin.  She felt a twinge of guilt at the memory.  She knew better than to let her body rule her like that.  As quartermaster, she hadn’t had the luxury of choosing a lover among the crew, for fear of being influenced against any orders the captain might offer.  As the only woman aboard, it had been a matter of safety. 

     But now, as captain, she had even less freedom in that respect.  The heat McAvery awoke in her was tempting, seductive, but she would keep her head.  He wasn’t worth the risk.  No matter how fast her blood pounded when he gazed at her.

     Kestrel directed her rowers to drop them at the darkest stretch of beach.  Once the hull scraped against the sand, Kestrel reached over with a key to unchain McAvery’s hands. 

     “Ah,” he sighed rubbing his wrists.  “Sweet freedom.”


But what might happen if we write it a different way, having Kestrel follow an opposite ethical path? 

But now, as captain, she had even less freedom in that respect.  The heat McAvery awoke in her was tempting, seductive, but she would keep her head.  He wasn’t worth the risk.  No matter how fast her blood pounded when he gazed at her.  In fact, she thought suddenly, wildly, he was too much of a risk to take along on the mission at all.  What if he was wounded?  If she spared a moment worrying for him, everything was lost.  He was only a man.  A beautiful man who made her heart leap, but men could be replaced.  Even this one.

     Kestrel directed her rowers to stop while they were still in deep water, sitting off the darkest stretch of beach.  She stared at McAvery for a long second, memorizing his face.  He stared back, the question in his eyes.  At last she sighed.  “I am sorry, but this is your stop.”

Before he could speak, she shoved him hard over the side and into the water.  He hit the water with the softest of splashes, sinking below the waves into the darkness.  Kestrel waited as the bubbles rose, watching until there were no more.  She turned her face back toward shore.  “Take me in, lads,” she said, not looking back.



The scene plays equally either way, since the final battle is between Kestrel and her enemy, and she could have found her way to her destination without McAvery’s help.  But in order to have a reasonably happy ending, McAvery needs to live through that boat ride.  Without him along, Kestrel’s mission becomes tougher, and her attempt to put herself above the criminals against whom she’s struggling becomes more murky.  Even if she doesn’t entirely trust him, letting McAvery live keeps Kestrel walking the high road.  

Now I want you to choose a scene in your own work, and rewrite it to have the character make a different choice.  How does that change the character?  Where does it drive the story?  Is it perhaps better than what you had before, or worse?  If you’d like to share the exercise with all of us, please do so. 


16 comments to Turning the Ethical Upside-Down

  • quillet

    Whoa, that second example is chilling. And it totally changes Kestrel’s character! Not in a fundamental sense, but in terms of her development. A choice like that would change the trajectory of her soul, so to speak. Something you’d find in Grimdark fantasy, maybe, where characters might be compelling but not likeable and certainly not admirable (in my opinion). I think if that’s the kind of fantasy you want to write (and/or read), then that’d be the way to go with your characters’ ethics. For myself, though, I prefer characters who might have those dark impulses, but struggle against them. Mind you, some struggle harder than others. I tried rewriting something with one character, like you suggested, and she flat-out refused to do it. Another one, though…I have a feeling he’d be more tempted. Which is kinda scary!

  • Wow. Misty. This was an excellent post. Scary, but excellent. I have to say, however, that I don’t want to try this. The very idea of my characters doing something so unethical, is hard. Okay. Impossible. Especially for me, right now.

    Because of what is going on in my own professional life, I want to add something to the thought that we need to rethink our character’s choices because a reader thinks the character is doing something stupid. Sometimes we can allow ourselves to consider that we made a mistake. Other times we can’t do that, and we have to accept that our character made the right choice and is on the right path.

    There is a huge debate going on right now on Amazon on a review of Death’s Rival. One review has been removed (I am guessing because it was so cruel.) The reviewer then chose to attack another reviewer, and and all the other commenters on that review. It has been difficult and painful. She has called Jane Yellowrock stupid, ridiculous, and one phrase I won’t use here because it is crude. She has called me some of the same names, and accused me of calling her *stupid* on another forum. Didn’t happen. From her comments I can deduce several things about her, but one thing for certain. I will never believe anything she (or people like her) say about my character. I do have Jane on the right path, one that is true to her history and her own weaknesses and strengths.

    Sometimes the writer is right. And even if we can’t defend our characters against her Real Life enemies, we have to stay the course. I wish I had the strength to do your exercise, however. I think it would give me tremendous insight into a character. Great post!

  • It IS a tough exercise, I won’t argue. After I wrote the opposite scene, ending in McAvery’s death, I found myself wanting to continue writing, to see what would have happened to Kestrel as a result of murdering McAvery. It would have been a completely different book, and Kestrel would not have been able to rescue her captain. The darkness she embraced by murdering one man would have consumed her. Which is why the exercise is useful, especially when someone is saying your character behaved stupidly. It’s easy for readers to say characters did dumb things, because the reader isn’t the one for whom the world changes as a result. When there are two choices, one may seem stupid but still be the more ethical one. And that’s what this exercise can bring to the fore.

    Faith, I hate that you’ve been dealing with someone being so cruel. (I wonder about people like that, who take such joy in tearing others down. There are lots of books I didn’t enjoy, for lots of reasons, but I just don’t have the time and energy to waste on torturing those authors about it. Better that I just move on to a story that makes me happy, yes? But I digress.) I don’t think that sometimes the writer is right…I think the writer is always right. We’re the ones in whose heads the characters live, after all.

  • Thanks, Misty. It’s been a rough 7 or so days.

    And I have to say, that I never think about you having darkness in your depths. But that scene you just wrote was…dark. And yes, Kes would have been totally different, irredeemable character, one I would have remembered, but I also would never have read another in the series.

    I think it’s a great exercise. I am just not strong enough a writer to do what you did. I literally cringe at the thought.

  • Faith, and everyone else who’s ever had to deal with this kind of thing, I’m so sorry. Please don’t let one hateful person destroy your faith in yourself and your work or drown out the many others who understand and appreciate what you do.

    This was a good exercise, and since I was working on some revision today I did it. This is an early scene, in fact is now the second scene in the novel, where the MC is still in the early stages of trying to change her life. After doing this exercise I think I need to make it harder for her to do the right thing, but I still don’t want to have her stay in her old mindset even here in the beginning. The two versions are below–the change is only for the last few paragraphs.

    The tallest of the men noticed her first, and said something to the others. He swaggered away from the group and said, “Hey baby, why don’t you come over here a little closer?”

    Keely slowed to a walk. She couldn’t see them clearly, but based on their silhouettes only two of them were fit enough to cause any concern. The others she’d be able to take care of quickly, unless they were smart enough, or trained enough, to work together as a team. If they were, defeating them would take longer.

    The others followed as he walked toward Keely. Four stayed together in a tight cluster, so not smart or trained, and no trouble to take out all of them if necessary. The fifth, one of the fit ones, hung back behind the others, not happy about what was going on. He grabbed the tall man’s arm and said something in a low voice, but the man yanked his arm away. “Get your hands off of me. I saw her first.” He slurred his words, but his friends laughed as they stumbled toward Keely.

    “Hey baby,” the man said again, his voice deepening with anger when she didn’t respond. “I said come closer over here so we can have a little fun.”

    Rage swelled inside Keely. Her years of subduing emotions, keeping them locked down tight and hidden from everyone, vanished instantly, leaving only a savage desire to destroy the men. Somewhere inside her head her former sergeant yelled at her to stand down, but this time the voice sounded desperate instead of demanding, and she ignored it. She needed physical violence and strode toward the men, planning her strategy. She estimated the fight would last about three minutes.

    “Yeah, come on. . . .what the hell are you doing?” When she got close enough for him to see her blank Killer face, his face paled. “You’re a Killer. Look, I don’t want any trouble. I didn’t know who you were.”

    He and his three friends tripped over each other as they backed away, keeping anxious eyes on Keely. The fifth man chose now to step forward, getting between Keely and the others. A few inches taller than Keely, with the pale blond coloring of most Dasutos, he looked fit and strong in his dark-colored sweater and worker pants. When he stepped into the circle of light on the pavement she could see that the left side of his face was badly scarred, as if someone had repeatedly run a sharp blade from his hairline to his mouth. Keely remembered that the makasa used scaring to show rank and history, and wondered what story his scars told.

    He stopped five feet away and held his arms out from his sides in the standard surrender pose. “I am sorry for the actions of my comrades,” he said, “but they are a little drunk. They did not mean any harm.”

    “Yes they did.” Keely continued to stare at them, her voice, as always, toneless. “They’re just afraid now that they know they can’t get away with it.”

    To her surprise, the man smiled. “Fair enough. But I would not have let them hurt anyone, and I will make sure they go home now and sleep it off. No need for you to bother with them.”

    “You take responsibility for them?” Keely watched the four run off and fought the urge to chase them. Another voice pierced her red hot rage, Captain Laris standing her ground against the demands for violent reprisal. If Keely wanted the captain to allow her to stay, she couldn’t harm these men.

    “Not forever,” said the man, a broad smile still on his face. “But for tonight.” He held out his hand. “I am Ronal, and you have my vow.”

    Keely stared at his hand, breathing steadily to force down the adrenaline surge and still her anger. When she knew she had control she reached out and shook his hand.

    **And the different approach**

    “Yes, they did,” said Keely, her voice toneless as always. “Now they’re afraid, but they’ll do this again to someone else if I don’t stop them. I have no wish to hurt you, so you should move.”

    Without giving him a chance to respond, she took two quick steps forward and spun around him as he reached out for her. She caught the first two men before they moved, snapping one’s neck and breaking the other’s nose with a quick blow to the face. The other two made it easy for her by falling down as they tried to flee. A carefully placed kick to the head killed one instantly, and she caught the fourth as he crawled away, crying for mercy. Once she’d snapped his neck, the returned to the one with the broken nose and eliminated him as well. She’d overestimated the time she needed. The fight lasted barely two minutes.

  • Nathan Elberg

    There’s a concept in quantum physics (and elsewhere) that every time there is a choice to be made, the universe splits and all choices are made. As I reviewed my novel, trying to find a good example to use in this exercise, I realized that in virtually all of them, the result would have been a different story (a different universe). Even in situations where a decision has no direct material consequence, it would affect the primary character’s credibility with other players. The decision, whether for good or evil, kindness or cruelty, builds a character. In the following, Osnat’s brutal behavior brings out the conflict within herself, of who and what she is.
    Miriaq’s eyeballs were ready to come out of his head, he was straining so hard. He had shed all his clothes, perhaps remembering Simon’s nakedness when he had been tied down by invisible ropes. Unlike Simon, Miriaq wasn’t excited, but enraged. He glared at the approaching sled.
    It stopped right in front of him.
    “So, you’re ready to give birth to my baby?”
    “You’re so sure it’s yours?” Osnat’s pristine hatred pushed her discomfort aside.
    “Every woman I give my seed to gets pregnant, and gives birth to a child that looks and acts like me.”
    “You think my baby is going to be ugly and stupid, like you?”
    “I know it will be.”
    “Can I rely on you to get the baby a name, if you’re so sure it’s yours?”
    “If you’ll come back with me I’ll make sure he gets a name. But Puah will probably kill you for what you did to Simon.”
    “How long did she wait before killing him?”
    Miriaq pointed his arm at Osnat, accusing. “Simon was useless, frozen to the ground. She wrapped some blankets around him to keep him warm, but he wouldn’t stop crying. Puah finally stopped it, because the noise kept her from sleep.”
    Puah had killed her own son for crying too much, and they held Osnat responsible. Well, she was, actually.
    Norma squeezed Haran’s arm and trembled. “Don’t look, if it’s going to bother you,” Haran said.
    “What’s going to happen?”
    He didn’t answer.
    “I’m not going back with you,” Osnat said. “I’m not interested in having Puah kill me. But you will provide a name.”
    Miriaq didn’t get it. “Fine. But you’ll have to come to me when the child is old enough.”
    “I’m not going where you’re going. But I’ll have the name.” She took a stone knife from Ijiq, and stepped closer.
    Miriaq trembled as he tried to break free of the invisible ropes. He started to realize that this was going to be very bad for him.
    Osnat reached between his legs, and started to massage.
    “You want it again?” he asked.
    He didn’t understand.
    Osnat slashed down with the knife, sawing roughly to sever his manhood.
    “I didn’t like when you stuck this in me without asking. I’m going to stick it in you now, and I’m also not asking.”
    Miriaq’s mouth was open in shock. Osnat placed his penis between his teeth, and with a thought bound his lips together. Haran held Norma upright as her knees buckled.
    “Are you having a good day, Miriaq? As good as the day you first met me? As I remember, you were hunting for a name for a boy….”
    Blood was pouring from between Miriaq’s legs onto the wet snow. His mouth was clamped shut, his arms sewn to his sides. The only thing that moved was the hair on his chest, waving gently in the breeze. He had control of his eyes, but they were frozen wide open by terror, stirred together with hate.
    “I’m glad you offered to provide a name for my son. I’m going to take you up on that now.”
    When Falun had butchered her husband, he had first stuck a spear tip through her Simon’s throat, killing him. He was dead when Falun had started removing his head. Osnat didn’t bother with that nicety.
    Miriaq trembled as he tried to break free of the invisible ropes. He started to realize that this was going to be very bad for him.
    “Miriaq, you don’t deserve to live. But we could use another hunter; we have lots of people to feed. I’ll free you if you promise to obey me, without question.”
    He gnawed at his lip, continuing to shiver.
    “I promise to obey.”
    Osnat glanced at Haran, standing just behind Miriaq. “You’re free. Make—”
    Miriaq’s mouth opened wide, his arms flew into the air before he collapsed. Haran’s knife was buried deep in his back.
    “You should know better than to trust him, Osnat.”

  • Nathan Elberg

    Faith, I was intrigued by your comment “The very idea of my characters doing something so unethical, is hard.” Jane Yellowrock deals with so many different kinds of creatures, and she’s not a social worker. Does that not imply a completely different ethical paradigm? Wouldn’t it be unethical to apply the same values to vamps, weres, etc., even though they are all sentient and intelligent?

  • Nathan, Jane is a killer. She kills insane vampires. But… Kill a child? Kill a human? Kill any sentient being who is not trying to kill her or a child or a human?

    She killed some humans in Raven Cursed, one human who was in her hotel room, standing with a drawn gun. She also killed a human who was trying to kill her client. She still suffers for it, because she sees it (rightly) as a slippery slope leading to other bad decisions.

    Right now Jane is dealing with the ethical dilemma of looking back on her righteous kills, and thin king that they might have been saved, had they been put into a some vamp’s scion lair until they cured. I want her to rethink all her life from the standpoint of guns and blades and killing. And I want her to suffer for it.

  • @Faith – like a child vamp? Could be a terrible dilemma for her that could be an entire premise for a book. Especially if she has to choose between taking him/her to someone she may not entirely trust, or going against killing what she might feel is a kindred spirit. Especially if that child looks like one near and dear to her… 😉

  • Daniel, exactly. I am writing the book that deals with that particular ethical dilemma now. 🙂

  • Nathan Elberg

    “Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431–1476), was a member of the House of Drăculești, a branch of the House of Basarab, also known by his patronymic name: Dracula. He was posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler.” He was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
    According to some historians, if not for Vlad’s over-the-top cruelty, Europe would have become an Islamic continent, and history of earth as we know it would have been quite different (see my comment above about the multiverse).
    One of the things that I admire about Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is that the main characters are willing to do things that aren’t the obvious choice from an ethical point of view. Star Trek TNG also grappled with this.
    Ethics aren’t black and white. It’s important for a writer to deal with the subtleties and nuances.

  • Vyton

    Misty, this is a great post. Thank you for showing us this exercise. I’m with the others in it being scary. And I think part of that was that not only did she push him in, but she waited until there were no more bubbles. This exercise is valuable for ethical choices, but it seems like it could be used to explore other paths for the story — like Nathan said — other universes.
    Faith, you are always right. Go, Jane.

  • Thanks, y’all. It came up during our ethics discussion at Mysticon, and I thought it sounded like an unusual way to work out ethical issues I, as the writer, might face with my characters. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it, too.

    I do hope, though, that you’re not all nervous around me now. I’m really very nice, despite the darkness in my soul. 😀

  • Ken

    Had to wait till I got home to post this. Better late to the party, etc…


    She was in the fifteenth minute of her planned night-long funk that included sitting on the bridge and aimlessly walking The Kestrel’s corridors when the external intercom buzzed.

    She debated ignoring it, then settled for flipping on only the audio.


    “Deanna.” Rector’s voice oozed through the speaker grille.

    Deanna’s chin dropped to her chest. This just keeps getting better and better.
    “What do you want, Denis-” she began, but then she had a better idea. “Never mind,” she said. “Hold on a second, I’m coming down.” She switched the intercom off.

    Rector stood, unchanged, just beyond the boarding ramp as it descended. He’d come to talk, Deanna noted, because he’d only brought three of his heavies with him. They stood back by the still idling truck, pretending not to watch.

    Deanna walked down the ramp, the look in Rector’s eyes as he watched her reminding her that she’d need to take a shower when this was over. He smiled and spread his hands as she approached. She returned the smile and, as he was about to say something, she planted her foot and punched him square in the face.
    The punch rocked his head back and Deanna used that momentum to shove him as hard as she could. Rector stumbled back a few steps before falling on his ass. The look of surprise on his face almost made everything worth it.

    “What the f**k was that for,” he shouted. Behind him, his men were all watching her, indecision flowing from one face to another and back again.

    “That,” Deanna said, “was for screwing me over in the first place.” She stepped backward, putting some space between them. “I wasn’t able to deliver it last time.”

    To her surprise, Rector chuckled. He rubbed his chin and climbed to his feet.
    “I suppose I deserved that,” he said.

    Not-So Ethical

    Deanna walked down the ramp, the look in Rector’s eyes as he watched her reminding her that she’d need to take a shower when this was over. He smiled and spread his hands as she approached. She returned the smile and, as he was about to say something, she ripped the pistol from her belt and shot Rector between the eyes.

    The look of surprise on his face almost made everything worth it.

    “That,” Deanna said, “was for screwing me over in the first place.” She stepped backward, eyeing Rector’s ex-heavies, her pistol ready for the first twitch that indicated trouble.

    Timo’s cowboy boots clomping on the deck behind her skidded into a heavy silence.
    “Um, Boss?” he said.

  • Ken

    heh…botched the Italic tag…

  • Late to this party, too. In the book I’m currently writing, I just had Ethan make an ethical choice of questionable wisdom. He did what he thought was best, according to his values. But others question whether he was right to do this, and when his decision leads to a tragedy, he’ll begin to question that as well. Cool post, Misty.