Character Morality & Ethics

What Separates Your Heroes From The Villains?

Have you ever put much thought into what makes your heroes and villains different from each other? Have you ever put much thought into the actual value of what makes them different? If you haven't, then now's a really good time to start - because too often, not thinking this through leaves authors with heroes who are actually pretty awful and/or villains whose actual evilness is questionable.

Last updated: September 16, 2020

Table of Contents

Common ethical/moral systems examined & explained

When it comes to fictional characters, there are about four modes of ethics and morality they ultimately follow:

Type 1: Declarative
"We're the good guys because we say we are."

Most people recognize this type of system as functionally worthless, as anyone can just up and declare themselves the good guys, no matter how awful they are. Those who think this way have no real concept of ethics and morality - they just think in terms of what they want and how they can get it, regardless of anything else. In practice, it doesn't really work for anyone but villains.

Many characters who are meant to be pure or to be the voice of reason unintentionally end up being this type.

Type 2: Oppositional
"Those people are the bad guys. We stand against those people. Therefore, we are the good guys."

Unfortunately, this system isn't much better. There's at least a concept of camaraderie and working for the greater good here, but it overlooks the possibility that one's own group might not be any better than the "bad" guys. Another problem is that this this system in real life tends to foster, even encourage extremism. After all, if standing against your enemies makes you "good," there's nothing short of mutiny or betrayal that can make you "bad," not even the most brutal of war crimes and human rights violations.

Stories where characters like these are written as good guys and heroes tend to end up with Protagonist-Centered Morality.

Type 3: Performative
"That's something that the bad guys do. We don't do that because we are the good guys. As long as we don't do that, we remain the good guys."

This one is undeniably much better than Types 1 and 2. Those who operate on this principle are less likely to end up committing the same heinous atrocities that their enemies do. It's a pretty decent way to conduct one affairs most of the time - for example, it's bad people who go around hurting people for petty reasons, so if you want to remain good, you don't go around hurting people for petty reasons. Bad people take people's things without asking, so if you want to be good, you don't do that. And so on and so forth.

However, this system also has a critical flaw: it does not actually get to the root of why good is good and bad is bad. It has a partial and relatively intuitive understanding of the concept, but it does not unpack and truly examine the whys behind them. This can lead to a number of problems, including heroes who refuse to take action at all because the only available option is "something the bad guys would do."

For example, Marnie ends up in a scenario where she can choose to save one out of two groups of people: one with three individuals, and one with seven. She looks at the whole thing and says, "choosing who lives and who dies is something bad guys do," and chooses not to make a choice at all. As a result, ten people die. In other words, Marnie squandered an opportunity to save some people and spare their families the agony of losing their loved ones, and instead chose let them all perish and to let everyone's loved ones suffer. Exactly what good does that achieve?

For another example, a group of people are temporarily trapped in a building. One of the people, named George, threatens violence on those who displease him. Finally, he outright attacks someone. Kylie, one of the people trapped in the building, could easily intervene and take George down in a fight and restrain him with duct tape, but chooses not to on the grounds that "if I do that, I'll be no better than him." As a result, the victim is left in critical condition and George remains free to terrorize everyone else. Again, what good does that do? How does it help?

This system also fails to give people a framework to actually resort to desperate measures and come out with their personal integrity intact. If they allow themselves to take a "bad guy" choice, even if it was the only choice available, they're probably going to feel defiled. They may even end up mentally traumatized as a result. It also encourages "slippery slope" thinking on their own parts and on the parts of others - if someone chooses to do one thing a bad guy might do (like choose who lives or dies), what's to stop that person from choosing to do another villainous thing? And then another? And so on until this person becomes a villain? This can make people feel irrationally afraid that they or others are going to "turn evil," which may ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly if the dominating sentiment is that this they've crossed a line that there's no coming back from.

A major flaw with this mode of thinking is that it makes for some very sanctimonious characters. For example, they might insist that others stop doing things that "the bad guys do" without considering their personal circumstances or offering them any other options. It's not very helpful to insist that some homeless outcast should stop stealing food because "good people don't steal!" when there's no feasible alternative available. It's likewise pretty heartless to insist that a superhero who barely scrapes by on a day job never accepts any kind of reward from anyone because "good people don't expect rewards!"

This system also allows for some pretty awful boundary violations. Those stuck in a "heroes always, heroes never..." mindset are likely

Finally, this system is fairly easy for manipulators and moral abusers to exploit. For example, let's say that Tim is struggling financially and can barely pay for his own necessities. Then one day his brother Alex, who refuses to get a job, comes along and demands that Tim let him come live with him. At first Tim refuses, but then Alex says, "Since when do good people just refuse to help those in need? How does this make you different from those politicians and CEOs you rant about so much for not helping out the poor?" Thus guilt-tripped, Tim caves and lets Alex move in with him, very much against his better judgment and best interests.

All three of these types have one flaw in common. All of them, even Type 3, are based in duality - "Us vs. Them" thinking. Although Type 3 does succeed into beginning to delve into the actual principles of ethics, it still doesn't go far enough into examining the principles of good and bad. It also fails to completely shake the dualistic mindset, as it divides actions into "good" and "bad" regardless of context.

But there's a fourth type, one that does not rely on dualism and actually encourages people to consider the underlying principles behind good and bad:

Type 4: Consequential + Consensual
"Suffering is undesirable. No one wants to suffer any more than they have to. Therefore, we should do our best to ensure that people do not suffer without necessity, and that we try to relieve suffering when and where it is ethical for us to do so."

This system bases good and bad on which actions in a given situation will bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number while minimizing harm to all parties as much as possible. It recognizes that "perfect" options are not always available and so does not classify people as "bad" because they chose the lesser evil. Marnie is free to feel unhappy about being unable to save everyone, but she can take comfort in knowing that she did the best she could. Kylie doesn't have to feel happy about beating and tying a man up, but can at least know that this action saved one person and prevented others from likely being harmed. Tim can point out that his lazy brother is putting demands on him that he just can't meet without putting himself in jeopardy and that he'll just have to find help elsewhere.

It neatly avoids the "slippery slope" problem as well. If you choose to take desperate action now, what's to stop you from doing something like it later? The simple fact that you make a point of refraining from these actions until you've ruled out everything else. It also avoids the sanctimony problem - characters who operate on this principle will understand that even though stealing necessities is not preferable, it's sometimes not enough to just demand that someone just stop doing it - they may also need to help this person find viable alternatives, or they may just have to square with the fact that there are no viable alternatives presently and just let things be for now.

There's another term for this system: the least-harm principle.

The least-harm principle explored & explained

Obviously, some suffering in life is unavoidable, and most people would agree that it's better to suffer some pain and live than suffer no pain and not exist at all. Some people will happily accept some suffering if it means getting a reward out of it or doing something worthwhile (which can include relieving other people's suffering.) But most people would agree that other people should not go around making people's lives any more difficult and painful if it can at all be feasibly avoided.

Now, a racist old grandma might argue that a grandchild is making her suffer by marrying some brown-skinned person instead of a white one. And that might be true. But in this case, grandma's feelings are irrelevant. The issue doesn't actually affect her personal wellbeing and safety at all. It does not restrict her ability to conduct her personal affairs how she likes. It does not degrade or devalue her as a person. Her suffering is just an emotional response, and her grandchild is not responsible for that. If we were all responsible for other people's emotional reactions and were required to do as they wished simply because they were emotional, we would live in a tyranny ruled by the most sensitive and the most easily-offended (a "whinyocracy," if you will), which is a clearly dysfunctional system. Thus, the least-harm principle requires that we do not categorically surrender to those who wish us to stop simply because what we say or do offends one of their personal beliefs or principles. There must be more to it than hurt feelings. There must be actual, measurable harm being done.

The least-harm principle makes sense from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint as well. Harming people has a myriad of undesirable side-effects. It damages their health and morale, which makes them less effective as workers or soldiers. It also gives them motivation to revolt. And sure, someone could create a system with harsh penalties for those who just didn't obey the rules, and someone could hire muscle to suppress potential revolution, but you still have the problem of unhappy and unhealthy people being less efficient workers, and then there's the fact that this lawkeeping system costs money and requires labor to uphold and maintain.

Now you might be wondering whether all those villains who commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of the greater good are justified. The answer is that they are not. Inevitably, each and every one of these villains is lacking something vital: consent. Maybe killing off 90% of humanity would allow them to create a Utopian paradise, but most people are perfectly willing to accept less-than-Utopian conditions if it means that they get to keep on living. Maybe putting them under strict mind-control would keep them from fighting with each other without killing them, but most people would rather accept the risk of violence than lose their free will. So what makes these sorts of activities villainous isn't merely that the villain is taking radical measures upon large numbers of people; it's that the villain is taking radical measures upon large numbers of people without their consent.

And this in turn might raise the question of whether it's all right to lock up criminals, period. Certainly, they didn't consent to that. But in the case of a violent repeat offender, this person has shown a clear pattern of disregarding the safety and welfare of others, IE, harmfully violating their consent. In this case, the greater good principle would suggest that we put people like this into environments where they cannot continue to cause harm to others. Yes, it might not be fun for a serial killer to be placed in an environment where they have no access to potential victims, but by not doing this, even more people are going to end up suffering, both their victims and the friends and families of the victims who will be left with the pain of their loss. It cannot be argued that the serial killer deserves unrestricted freedom more than these other people deserve to have their lives and/or their loved ones alive.

And this is one of the many problems with Batman. He's already tried to put the Joker into custody several times, but it never holds him for long. Thus, he knows by now that it's only a matter of time before the Joker breaks free and kills someone else. Yet he refuses to just kill the Joker, instead opting to use measures he knows will be ineffectual time and time again. Every time Batman refuses to kill the Joker, he is deciding that the Joker deserves to be alive more than all those other people deserve to be alive and/or have their loved ones alive. Can you imagine Batman trying to justify himself to the victims' friends and families? Do you really think they'd pat him on the head for his choices and tell him to carry forth?

This is not to say that everyone should just take the law into their own hands, of course. But Batman lives in Gotham City, where law enforcement and the legal system is so ineffectual that people will be harmed in high numbers without vigilantes like himself taking action. The problem is that Batman half-asses what he does.

Now you might be asking if the least-harm principle demands vigilantism. The answer is, only in specific circumstances - that is to say, ones where it's the least-terrible option available at a given moment. And this is another problem with Batman - he's rich, but he's not doing anything to end the corruption and systemic inequality that incentivizes Gotham City's residents into taking criminal action. If he really, really wanted to do something about Gotham City's criminal element, he'd put a lot more focus on that.

In well-made and well-running legal and economic systems, the least-harm principle actually serves as an inhibitor to vigilantism. A good legal system helps us avoid causing harm to innocent people by giving us a process that helps to determine whether they're actually guilty, and if so, exactly what and how much they are actually guilty of. Without such a system, people are more likely to be convicted wrongfully or given excessively severe sentencing, and guilty parties are less likely to convicted. And so it's in everyone's best interest to respect and use a functioning justice system should it exist; and if one does not, to try to create one if at all possible.

The least-harm principle can also serve to inhibit vigilantes from causing excessive harm in other ways. If they consistently follow it, they will always choose to try the least-harmful and least-destructive methods available to them. Thus, a vigilante superhero who was "least-harm" rather than "no-kill" would still very likely just leave the crooks restrained for the police to collect rather than kill them. While such hero might kill, it would only be when all other options had been ruled out first.

(Also, please remember that to categorically claim that "good people never kill" is to insult everyone who has had to kill someone in self-defense or to protect someone else's life. Are you really going to claim that they should have just let someone murder them?)

The least-harm principle isn't particularly conducive to a vengeful mindset, either, because the idea isn't "I'm going to make sure the guilty get what they deserve," but rather "I'm going to use the least-harmful, most humane way I can to solve this problem."

And neither does the least-harm principle justify experimenting on millions of people to produce a potential cure for an illness, either. The trouble with claiming it would overlooks the fact that most people would rather accept a risk of some pain and suffering in their lives than to be outright forced to die by someone, or to see others outright forced to die for their sakes. Knowing that a cure is being developed at the expense of others is going to leave a bad taste in many people's mouths, and if anything, many are going to do everything in their power to stop its development, or start boycotting it on principle. Furthermore, the company decided to develop this treatment at such a high cost might be so damaged from the backlash it ultimately receives that it goes completely under, effectively stopping it from doing any research of any other kind at all and thus actually getting very little good done in the long run.

Those who do support the product will be seen by many as callous monsters who easily put other people's lives before their own. And historically, those who are forced into medical experiments by some regime or other tend to be those who are perceived as the most disposable or undesirable, which is usually some very poor or maligned class. And because new medicines tend to be expensive, it's probably going to be mostly wealthy people supporting it. With this kind of thing going on, you're just asking for class conflict or even outright rebellion - and that in itself is going to get people harmed!

Also, is this really the only way for these researchers to obtain the data they need? Is the situation really and honestly so truly dire that all other methods and ethics they currently have are completely failing? It's not likely. And another valid consideration is the precedent it sets - does it perhaps encourage others to carry on with a mindless "FOR THE GREATER GOOD!" approach? That would be very, very harmful.

The thing is, people are more than numbers and statistics, and any ethical dilemma that reduces them to such inevitably overlooks the vast majority of factors that should be taken into consideration.

This is what makes the good guys different from the bad guys: the fact that they care enough to try to make sure that people are not harmed when it's unnecessary or avoidable, and that people are not harmed simply to further some agenda or grand vision that they did not agree to further freely and without pressure.

The least-harm principle also means that you take responsibility for yourself. If you treat someone hurtfully, then you do what you can to make it right (maybe offer an apology or pay reparations) and do what you can to reduce the odds of treating someone in the future. For example, snap out at someone because of your displaced aggression issues? That means that you go and deal with those issues in a way that won't hurt anyone else, so you don't end up hurting someone else. And taking responsibility for yourself also means periodically asking, "But is my approach actually working, and is it working in accordance with the least-harm principle?" If not, then it's got to be changed.

And very importantly, it also means that you take care of yourself. If your exhaustion means that you are likely to mess up on the job in a way that will harm people, then you rest until you are no longer exhausted. If trying to help one person will harm you in a way that will prevent you from being able to help more people later on, then you are not required to help the one. If accepting a reward for one's superhero work helps pay the bills, then by all means, accept it. Although these kinds of things might offend the sensibilities of Type 3s (Performatives), just remember that while they're letting people suffer and die because they don't want to ruin their perfect moral records, you're actually making choices that will make a greater positive difference in the world.

Think about your own characters and where they fit into this scheme

What does make your heroes different from the villains besides the cause or faction they fight for? Do your heroes really show better ethical standards than your villains? Do they at least try to do their best, even if the optimal solution isn't always available? If not, then what makes you so sure that your heroes really are heroes, and not just one villainous faction fighting another villainous faction?

And on the flip side, what makes your villains actual villains, rather than people who simply happen to be opposing or rivaling your heroes? What do they do that makes them genuinely nastier people? Are they inflicting more harm and suffering than the heroes, or are they actually inflicting less? What makes you so sure that they're villains, and not just one reasonably heroic faction fighting another reasonably heroic faction?

And when it comes to your heroes' "good" actions and choices, are they making them merely because "it's what the good guys do," or are they making them because they've determined that they're the most helpful, ethical, and humane options they can take under the circumstances? It's very important to stop and figure this out. If you don't, you run the risk of ending up with heroes who make the side of good look stupid and sanctimonious, or with heroes who somehow seem more concerned with looking good than actually doing good.

And finally, if after all of this you're still tempted to try to keep your heroes running on a Type 3 (Performative) system because you still have some idea that it makes them better people, consider that in the real world that nobody can actually stick to this system when things start getting complicated and dangerous, at least, not if they want to actually make it. In Fictionland, Type 3s often only succeed because their author bails them out at the last minute. Maybe the villain makes a critical blunder somewhere, or some unforeseen third option suddenly presents itself, or the hero actually talks the villain out of setting off the doomsday device, or something.

In the real world, you cannot count on lucky breaks like these. Those who sit by twiddling their thumbs and waiting for them are likely to end up very disappointed. Those who actually survive tend to end up either regressing to Type 2 (Oppositional) or even Type 1 (Declarative), or they progress to Type 4 (Consequential).

In some regards, it could be said that what truly separates the heroes from the villains isn't what they absolutely will or won't do, but rather which way they go when things get hairy: will they try to respect and uphold the least-harm principle, or will they fall into rigid Us vs. Them thinking? Will they at least try to get the best possible outcomes out of the worst situations, or will they end up making choices that cause needless and avoidable harm simply because they can't see past duality?

You might also take a look at:

"Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Moral & Ethical System Development Questions
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Why "Purity" Is An Overrated Character Trait
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
How To Recognize A Moral Abuser

A Few Things To Know When Writing Rebellions & Coups
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Competent Tacticians

Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Tips To Create & Write More Interesting & Believable Villains

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