How Do You Explain a Character’s Moral Code?

Before WHISPERS IN THE CANYON was published, I received an agent’s critique of my query letter and first ten pages that was pretty positive. She said it did a nice job of presenting a complicated plot succinctly.

However, she felt the “stakes” weren’t quite high enough. If you’ve read the first article that comes up on my home page , you know that after Adam Donovan kills a bank robber, he decides to tell the outlaw’s family of the death himself. The agent asked why he would do that, and further posed the question:

What makes his moral code run so deep?”

I’ve been pondering over that for quite a while , and I really don’t know how to answer it. I’ve confessed before to being a very literal person, and the question literally seems to me to be unanswerable.

In Western literature, the “Knights of the Range” adhere to a code of chivalry to a lesser or greater extent. But that discounts the drifters, the takers, the opportunists, and the out-and-out “bad guys”, who might also be cowboys. So it’s not just the cowboy persona that’s at work in any given character.

cattle-Amanda Biles pxby

Photo courtesy of Amanda Biles via Pixabay

It seems to me that a moral code is something a person has or doesn’t have. There are those who have set standards for themselves, and those who have not. That’s not to say that some standards aren’t flexible, or that some aren’t wrong (think Hannibal Lecter). But those without a code seem to do whatever appeals to them at a particular moment, while those with a code can usually be expected to react in a similar way to similar situations.

I consider my own moral code to be fairly rigid. It’s based on the ideal that I would never intentionally harm another being, or allow another being to come to harm if I can prevent it. (Kind of sounds like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, doesn’t it? I read a lot of his books as a teen.)

So what causes one to adopt and adhere to a moral code? I believe that it’s first made up of the total of our lifetime experiences, including education and parental guidance, but I know that can’t be all of it.

My sister and I were brought up by the same parents in the same home and had essentially the same education. We were both well-loved, we were both occasionally spanked (all the kids of our generation were—we never thought it meant we weren’t loved). We ate together, played together, went to church together. Our birthdays fall only one day apart (so there goes the astrological explanation). How then are we so different?

My sister worked one job for over 30 years; I changed jobs every 3 to 5 years. She worked in pre-school; I worked in finance. My sister always practiced the religion we were brought up in; I don’t. She would “go with the flow”; I prefer to map things out. I tend to collect evidence and examine it from all sides; she was more likely to follow her instincts. My sister inherited red hair and blue eyes; for me, gray eyes and brown hair. We both have loved to read, but her tastes were much less eclectic than mine.

So is it genetic? Part of it must be, don’t you think? If the corporal identifiers are so different, doesn’t it stand to reason that the internal processes must be different as well? What leads one to be more accepting, another more inquisitive, when all other factors would seem to be the same?

Can we ever know? Will brain mapping ever tell us why even identical twins have different interests or laugh at different jokes?

Or is the answer to the original question a whole lot more simple? Could it just be that the men I admired most in my young life—my father, my grandfather, my uncle—had a moral code that never broke? My sister was quite young when my grandfather died; she only met my uncle on occasional quick visits after the Army moved him to Kansas and then California.

Could Adam be the reincarnation of those men I admired—my wish to have them all live again, if only in print? I think that may be true. In fact I’m sure it is.

But it still leaves me with absolutely no idea of how to answer the original question:

What made their moral codes run so deep?

If you have a theory on this, I’d love to hear it.

One thought on “How Do You Explain a Character’s Moral Code?

  1. Hi Gifford,

    I am an American West HF author also (The Two Valleys Saga). One of the historical families that I deal with in the series have a fairly exhaustive account of the period I am writing about. To your question about moral codes, this family history gave me some clues. The family steadily moved across the south over the centuries and moved as each place became too “civilized”. They preferred to depend on their own code of honor, morality and justice. Each time they left the responsibility to someone else they were wronged (not always, but that is how they felt) and therefore they would move on to places where they were free to make their own rules and live by them without interference. This is an important factor in my series. I believe, if they felt they were living in a place without law and order and they shot someone, they would feel it their duty to inform the kin if they could. It all goes back to the pioneer ‘spirit’, which wasn’t always pretty.


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