TIL 7: writing and moral development


Really great video chat on Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and why they matter for your writing (the text below is my scribbles as I was watching, and it’s getting a bit late to tidy up (yet), so apologies for that!)

Think about mindsets: how we change; why we grow

Writers deal with the psychology of people every time they write a character. Knowing a bit more about psychology can help you avoid the cliches and build really authentic characters.

Level 1 – Pre-conventional

Obedience vs. punishment – behavioural training. Working with instincts, punish/reward behaviour (e.g. dogs or children ;))

Cost/Benefit – when the kids start to question you, and start to make ‘logical’ decisions. Cost e.g. fear and anxiety
Don’t forget this when writing characters: the reason for doing things outside of their comfort zone have to be big enough to overcome the gut reaction

Or how ‘trained’ we are to be obedient – panicking over being a minute late, or how much we think ‘will mom approve’ – when really, does it matter?

Level 2 – Conventional morality

God child vs. bad child
Peer influence, pleasing parents etc – external approval
This gets ‘lost’ a lot in writing; characters are either super-good (missionary) or total badass doing whatever she wants
Living our lives for someone else’s happiness – comes to an end (35-50?) and you just don’t give a crap

Law and Order
Morality/ethics defined by illegality

We sometimes forget to write characters in the grey areas; comes out flat. Even ‘bad’ characters don’t entirely eschew the group morals
Cf leaders/high in command/sheep

A large percentage of writing/writers ‘stop’ here at this level; some people also stop here in RL development (and it can make you feel sooo out of place when you can’t converse with them!)
e.g. people who just have their beliefs and don’t challenge them or ever want to apply logic (to be fair, this isn’t ‘bad’ – we all do this with at least some things).

e.g. Plato – prisoners in the cave (look it up)
the prisoners interpreting shadows are in the conventional phase – we all live in here with some things and some of the time. The guy that runs out and understands the sun has gone forwards – but we can’t live in that analytical phase ever (although if you CAN that’s different from not ever leaving the cave, when you do have to return)

Level 3 – Postconvention

Social contract
Conventions, social ‘norms’ (e.g. politeness)
Things like mass shootings in cinemas are so hard to hear because it breaks all social contracts that say we just don’t do these things

e.g. conversation about rehabilitating paedophiles – shoves most of us straight back to conventional. But doesn’t mean that there’s not a conversation to be had

Postconventional thinking in children makes them seem older than their years

Ethical principles
e.g. newer Star Trek:
Bones – law and order, good/bad child reactions. Fast thinking, fixes everything
Spock – deep thinking
Kirk – somewhere in the middle (id/ego/etc)

or, Mal versus Jayne versus Zoe
Mal’s ethical principle is SO strong, even when he breaks social contract all over the place (thief, etc)

Social contract says that you don’t have to die for a friend – people will understand that there was nothing else you could do.
The ethical principle is ‘the good of the many versus the good of the few’
As a writer, you are responsible to dig through some of this stuff. Really dig deep and handle it – or your characters will be flat. Make them stand for something more than the horrible things you put them through

E.g. crappy childhood, dystopian world – why is someone nice in these circumstances? If she’s just good, no one cares – make her selfish. What does she gain from doing the good thing?

Spock, Kirk etc were interesting because they struggled. They could make the wrong choice. Firefly’s characters – so complex, never know which path the character will take in a morally ambiguous circumstance.

Survival is our key reason for being, we are all selfish. Altruism needs a complex reason.
We will save our children over 200 strangers, unless…??!


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