The Moral Center
In most American films, the moral high ground is the domain of the hero. To conquer the villain he has to undergo some sort of change within himself. A general template for this transformation might be overcoming selfishness and putting the needs of others ahead of his own. Through his apprenticeship and growth, the hero learns something essential that will allow him to defeat the villain.
I’ve found that many screenplays contain a special character type that is somewhere between a stock character and an archetypal character. This figure is someone who will help the hero on his journey, and I call him or her: the moral center. It’s possible that the moral center also doubles as one of the archetypal roles such as the mentor or shapeshifter. This may be less common though, otherwise all stories would have moral centers and I don’t think that’s the case.
Aside from helping the hero in some small way, the true job of the moral center is to introduce the film’s theme, and clue us in to what the movie is all about. The voice of the moral center illustrates the writer’s perspective.
While the hero may be the moral compass of the film – the one who will strive to right the wrongs and reestablish the status quo – he is never the moral center. The hero is too busy with his quest, battling the villain, driving the story forward and facing obstacles. As the audience roots for him, he will make a series of choices – some of them will turn out to be right, others wrong. If he were also the story’s moral center, the film would assume a tone of preaching, and be of little interest to most audiences.
The moral center is almost always a minor character; someone often allied with the hero, but corrupted neither by him nor the villain. He brings to the story a voice of wisdom; shedding light on what the story is really about. With a few key lines, this enlightened individual will represent understanding and insight in a nearly godlike way.
If you really want to know who the moral center is: he’s the one dude in the film that you’d really want to hang out with.
I’ll elaborate more on the moral center in my next post with a few examples from popular films.