Inspiring Your Protagonist to Act (Moral Foundations)

When creating a dynamic character to carry your story, it’s important that they be strongly motivated to drive the plot forward. It makes them more interesting, and the story a lot more fun. When I was writing the first novel in The Witch of Cheyne Heath series, Waking the Witch, I was researching psychological models and personality type and I came across the work of Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia on moral foundations.

Haidt and his colleagues discovered six innate categories that people base their sense of morality on:

  • Care/Harm: sensitivity to the suffering of other people
  • Fairness/Cheating: sensitivity to cooperation and reciprocity between people
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: sensitivity toward working for or against the group
  • Authority/Subversion: sensitivity to tradition and leadership
  • Sanctity/Degradation: sensitivity to the way we behave toward our bodies, feeling them to be sacred in some way (thought this doesn’t only apply to religious views)
  • Liberty/Oppression: sensitivity to the way in which the socio-political structure treats individuals

Depending on where a person is on the political spectrum, they might be more attuned to one group of the above foundations than another. It’s a system I rather like, because it doesn’t paint any group as good or bad. Liberals simply value different moral foundations to conservatives, for example.

These moral foundations are also wonderful values that might spur a character to break out of their comfort zone. In the Witch of Cheyne Heath series, Gosha Armitage suffered greatly in her childhood at the hands of sorcerers and has a difficult relationship with her mother, a witch, so she’s sensitive to others being oppressed and harmed by users of magic. When she comes across someone who’s been hurt by magic, she feels compelled to help them. In the epic fantasy series I’m currently working on, the main character has Care/Harm and Loyalty/Betrayal as his moral foundations. He has built his life around a vow he made to his former captain to protect an innocent girl, and puts all self-interest to one side to uphold his values.

If you’re a writer, the next time you come up with a new character, try thinking about their moral foundations. How did they come to hold their beliefs? What can you do to them that’s so counter to their view of what’s right and wrong that they have no choice but to put their regular life aside and do something about it?

If you do use this approach to developing a character, drop me an email and let me know how it went!

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