"Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart

Did a character end up doing or causing something that caused substantial harm to anyone else in any way, whether accidentally or intentionally? Are you trying to avoid Protagonist-Centered Morality? Or are you unsure of whether that character is at fault for it? Or are you and others at disagreement over whether a character is at fault? Perhaps this flowchart can help clear things up.

My character is at fault/is not at fault. Now what?

Of course, what should or shouldn't happen next will depend heavily on the setting, and what those in charge or those who take it upon themselves to mete out justice consider justifiable to do in these situations. For example, perhaps they believe that even if a character technically isn't at fault, there's still a debt of some kind to be repaid, and that debt is a steep one. Or perhaps they believe that your character is still at fault for whatever reason. Or perhaps we're dealing with more understanding and forgiving people who will take these factors into careful consideration before deciding what to do with your character. Or perhaps your character is surrounded by people who just couldn't care less for whatever reason.

If you just happen to be looking for what might be the most fair and efficient way to handle the problem, here are some suggestions and guidelines:

Check and see if anyone else might be at fault. Far too often, matters of fault are seen as the sole responsibility of a single party when multiple parties are actually to blame - and not always in equal amounts. For example, a child who throws a tantrum in a store and breaks merchandise is definitely at fault for acting out that way, but the parent who stands by and allows the child to do that is also at fault for not taking the child out of the store in order to minimize the damage done. Likewise, someone who responds to someone's taunting with severe physical force instead of choosing a possible non-violent action is at fault for the physical harm done to this person, but the one who did the taunting is also at fault for deliberately riling this person up. But don't think that these actions cancel each other out - they don't. Just the opposite - most likely, both parties need to learn better habits and behaviors.

Even if a character is not at fault, it does not necessarily mean that no corrective action is needed. While a character who is not at fault does not need punished, care might need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from occurring later. This might entail teaching the character proper behavior, better coping mechanisms, or constructive life skills. Once the character knows that the action should be avoided, and knows how to avoid it, the character is at fault for any subsequent incidents that could have reasonably been avoided thus.

For example, if Jerry goes out hunting with his buddies with no idea that the mysterious animal bite he got a few weeks back is actually a werewolf bite, he's not at fault when he turns and, in a state of uncontrollable werewolfish ferocity, attacks someone. However, if he is aware that he will turn on the full moon, he is absolutely at fault if he ends up attacking someone because he failed to check the calendar or failed to do anything else he could have done to make sure he wasn't putting his buddies in harm's way, or at the very least, made sure that they had full knowledge and understanding of the risk they were in with reasonable opportunity to opt out. (So, it doesn't count if he waits until they're hours away from civilization with only one truck between them all before telling them.)

If it turns out that the reason behind the harmful action is something that renders your character unqualified to satisfactorily conduct a function or job (for example, not having the social skills to deal with people in a people-oriented job), then it's reasonable for your character to be removed from that position, at least until the problem can be rectified. Yes, it's a tough break for your character, but since the point of hiring or appointing someone is to have someone who can actually perform a particular task or duty, people are well within their rights to dismiss those who aren't up to it.

If your character is indeed at fault, what might make for a proper and proportionate response depends on a few factors. Not every incident is going to require the same type of response; sometimes things can be resolved with little to no action, while others might require something more intensive. Things to consider:

Is the character remorseful and regrets the action, and shows sympathy for those harmed? Then intense corrective action may not be necessary; the character's own conscience may serve as a sufficient deterrent from a repeat incident.

Is the character not remorseful and does not regret the action, and shows no sympathy for those harmed? Or did the character repeat a harmful action despite apparently feeling remorse and sympathy earlier? Then more intensive corrective action may be necessary in order to prevent another incident.

What was the context of the action? Did the offender take this action out of a genuine belief that there were no other viable options, or that any other possible "choice" was just a Hobson's choice? People will do severe things when desperate that they'd never do otherwise; if they can come to see that they have other options or that things are not as bad or dire as they believed, they may adjust their behavior for the better. Likewise, they may do the same if they are taught constructive skills where they lacked them before, or are taught how to use the skills they already have in a constructive manner. (Rehabilitation of this type has proven to be far more efficient at keeping first-time offenders out of prison than simply punishing them.)

Was the action something that the offender had no frame of reference to understand was wrong, or wouldn't have thought twice about doing because it was seen as perfectly acceptable where the offender came from? For example, Lillia comes from a culture where if someone sticks your tongue out at you, it's taken as a challenge to fight - and one is expected to fight, lest one be seen as weak and cowardly, which is seen as being horribly shameful. But nobody explained to Lillia that this isn't how things work here, and she had no way to understand that this isn't how things work away from home, so when someone stuck his tongue out at him she punched him in the face. Lillia certainly understood that her action would cause harm, but as she didn't understand that this would be seen as bad and unacceptable, the most appropriate course of action might be to explain to her that this isn't how things work here and that she should adjust her behavior accordingly. Should Lillia continue attacking people after being brought to understand that this isn't acceptable, then by all means should more stringent measures be taken.

Is it clear that no amount of corrective action will ever stop the character? If the character willfully continues to inflict severe/substantial harm on others (EG, loss of life, loss of physical or mental health, deprivation of necessities, etc.), then it may be appropriate to take whatever measures are necessary to make sure the character cannot keep inflicting harm on others, with respect to whichever qualifying option would be the most humane.

You might also like:

Character Morality & Ethics - What Separates Your Heroes From The Villains?
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks
Reasons Your RP Characters Might Be Bad Friends Or Love Interests
Reasons Your RP Characters Might Be Creepy (In A Bad Way)

On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Things About Moral Panics Writers Should Know
Things About Brainwashing Writers Need To Know

Back to General Storytelling & Other Things
Go to a random page!