The other day I was talking about our responsibility to reform the public image of our genres by producing quality literature rather than mindless, intelligence-draining, formulaic drivel (I'll talk about formula in another post because they do have their uses). I mentioned that one of my criteria for good literature is that it has to contain or be based on some sort of moral or personal value. I've been thinking a lot about that idea recently and here are some of the conclusions I've drawn.
Morals/values really are the heart of a story because they are the core of all good characters (and without some good characters, the book is going precisely nowhere). A character's personal moral/value system directly influences his or her view of the world and informs every decision the character makes. In other words, a character's morals form the basis for the character's motivations.
Of course, there are characters whom we all know and love that are conspicuous because of their complete lack of morals (one of my favorites being Han Solo, who ends up developing his morals as the movies progress), but these are a different case all together. Those characters' amorality is a moral code unto itself; it still informs their world-view and influences their decisions (these tend to be the devil-may-care mercenary types who are motivated by their own profit and preservation). It's important to note that even these characters were written that way intentionally; the author made a decision about what kind of morals they would/should have.
Authors who fail to give their characters a moral foundation of some sort are creating flat, colorless characters that no one can relate to, sympathize with, or even understand. SOAPBOX: I think writers who write these kinds of characters are simply projecting themselves into their story and onto their readers. Since they know exactly what they would do and why in a given situation, they assume everyone does—characters and readers included; they assume the reader knows what he/she is thinking and agrees. This is a symptom of a small mind and puerile understanding (or lack thereof) of people and the world. I hate getting into discussions with these kinds of people because they can't even comprehend that there is another point of view to the issue.
On an interesting note, I've found that sometimes my characters' values change as I'm writing the story. When that happens, I have to take a good hard look at the character and the events that are shaping him or her. The question is, are the changes in the character's morals understandable and realistic under the circumstances? It takes an awful lot to get someone to change what they believe about the world, about people, and about what's right or wrong; if my character is changing, there had better be a pretty darn convincing reason for it. Convenience to me, the author, isn't one of them, and I've had to rewrite many a scene because of that.
So, to writers everywhere, take a long look at your characters—old or new—and make sure you've given them a good, solid moral foundation. Even if they're the most depraved, perverted, morally bereft characters in the history of literature, make sure their actions match their values and motivations!