Morality Genre Conventions

In today's post, I'm covering the conventions of the morality genre. If you want to write a morality story that works—and that satisfies fans of the genre—then you need to nail these character roles, settings, and micro events in your novel.

I’m also going to show you how these key scenes manifest in the movie A Man Called Otto. Why movies? Why not books? The simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen this movie, you’ll watch it after reading this post to help cement these genre convention in your mind.

But, before we get into what those conventions are, let’s go over some basics. 


What Makes a Morality Story?

Morality stories center around a protagonist with a moral compass that’s about to change, for better or for worse. The protagonist is either seeking redemption from past mistakes or they want to silence their inner conscience so they can keep doing selfish things. Throughout the story, they are haunted by ghosts, memories, or events from the past that challenge their moral compass. By the end of the story, they will either sacrifice for others (and gain self-respect in the process), or they will fail to change, and cling to their selfish behavior even tighter, to keep whatever they’ve been worried about losing.

Beyond that, morality stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, action, adventure, or magic. They can include different subplots, too, as long as the protagonist’s moral compass remains the story’s focus. That being said, because this is an internal genre, you will want to choose an external genre to provide the scaffolding for your morality story to unfold within. 

Why Do People Read Morality Stories?

Readers choose these types of stories because they want to see what another person will do when given the choice to act selfishly or altruistically. They want to see if the protagonist will make the same choices that they (the readers) themselves would–will they take actions and make decisions for themselves? Or for others? Readers want to feel inspired, and they want to feel certain that they are worthy and capable of redemption, just like the protagonist.

And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the emotional experience readers are looking for in order for your story to work. So, how do you go about doing that? Well, the first thing you can do is figure out what obligatory scenes and conventions are required in a morality story for it to work. 

What Are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions? 

Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.

Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. They’re what help us write a story that works and when coupled with your genre’s conventions, help us evoke emotional reactions in our readers. 

Long story short, if you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work.

So, what are the conventions of the morality? Let’s dive in and see what the morality genre conventions are and how they show up in the movie A Man Called Otto.

The Key Scenes of the Morality Genre are:

#1. The protagonist starts the story at their worst.

The protagonist is a sophisticated person who has done (probably) something wrong while fully knowing the difference between right and wrong. They either want redemption from a past mistake, or they want to silence their conscience so that they can keep living life as they have been (likely very selfishly). Throughout the story, the plot will force them to make selfish or selfless decisions. Readers wonder—will they recover their moral compass? Or continue to live only for themselves?

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, the protagonist is a strong willed individual whose moral code seems to flex based on his mood and/or personal goals at any given moment. He has a very strict definition of how the world should be, and doesn’t understand why nobody else seems to notice everything that’s “wrong” in the world and with other people. He’s recently lost his wife and people perceive him as grumpy and hostile.

2. The antagonist opposes the protagonist and may try to prevent them from gaining redemption, or pressure them to face their bad behavior or wrongdoing.

The antagonist in a morality story is someone who sees the protagonist for who they really are. Because of this, the antagonist will either try to prevent the protagonist from gaining redemption or they will put pressure on the protagonist to face their bad behavior in the hope that they’ll recover their broken moral compass. 

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, Otto’s new neighbors (Marisol, Tommy, and their two children) don’t let him get away with grumpy—especially Marisol, who is nothing but friendly and immediately treats Otto like family. Marisol has no problem confronting Otto and calling him out about his grumpy behavior and selfish ways. She wants him to be a better person and sees the potential inside of him.

3. The protagonist is haunted by ghosts, memories, or events of the past that remind them of their past mistakes or wrongdoings. 

In a morality story, the protagonist is often haunted by ghosts, memories, or events from their past that remind them of their mistakes or wrongdoings. These “hauntings” help to put pressure on the protagonist so that they will eventually change their moral compass.

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, Otto is haunted by positive and negative memories of his wife. We learn that they lost their unborn child in a bus crash and that she recently passed. He plays these moments over and over throughout the story.

4. There is at least one character who represents the consequences of the protagonist’s selfish behavior or wrongdoing.

This character could be someone they’ve harmed in the past or someone who has suffered from similar actions taken by someone else. Either way, there’s at least one character who represents the consequences of selfish behavior—and that serves as a reminder (or lesson) for the protagonist.

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, we learn that Otto used to be best friends with his neighbor Rueben, but they are no longer on speaking terms. Both Otto and Reuben are strict and operate in a very me-centric way, so their lack of friendship is an example for Otto of what happens when you behave selfishly. There’s also a character named Malcolm who’s been mistreated by his father for being transgender. Otto has no problem with Malcolm, but he can see the effect that this kind of behavior has on Malcom.

5. A mentor figure who helps the protagonist see right from wrong.

In a morality story, there is at least one mentor figure who gives the protagonist guidance, and who helps them see right from wrong. Depending on the type of story you’re telling, you might also have a mentor who leads the protagonist astray or encourage immoral behavior, too. 

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, Marisol is the primary mentor for Otto. She shows him how to be a selfless person with her actions. Other than that, Malcolm also serves as a mentor for Otto. Malcolm has not had the most pleasant life (especially recently with his father), but he refuses to let it bring him down. Instead, he is a kind and optimistic person.

6. The protagonist faces external conflict that pits their goals against the needs of others, and that prompts moral decisions. 

The conflict in a morality story must give the protagonist opportunities act selfishly or for the greater good. This can look like an external plot problem that pits the protagonist’s goal against the needs of others. Or it can look like some kind of moral challenge for the protagonist to overcome. For example, extreme poverty, inequality, racism, misogyny, homophobia, ageism, etc. 

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, there’s a development company (Dye & Merika) trying to buy up the houses in Otto’s neighborhood. This provides some of the conflict that Otto has to face—and it directly effects him since they’re taking advantage of the elderly (and accessing confidential medical records) to bully the homeowners into selling. But beyond that, Marisol and her family provide most of the conflict Otto faces. For one reason or another, they just won’t leave him alone.

7. There is a foil character who positively or negatively demonstrates a different path the protagonist could take.

There’s a foil character who has either clung to their own selfish behavior (and who is miserable) or a genuine well-doer who is content being altruistic (unlike the protagonist). Usually, this is a character who embodies the ideals and attributes opposite of your character. And therefore, shows the protagonist the other path available to them.

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, Marisol is the primary foil, but Malcom fulfills this role, too. Both Marisol and Malcom are kind and selfless despite Otto’s grumpiness. 

8. The protagonist gets help from unexpected sources.

In a morality story, the protagonist gets help from unexpected sources like ghosts, journals, letters, enemies, children, people they’ve harmed, etc. These unexpected sources lead by example and help shine a light on what it means to be altruistic. 

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, Marisol, Tommy, and their children have the largest impact on Otto. They show him what it means to be a friendly neighbor and/or to be family. Otto’s also haunted by fond memories of his late wife—and in a few of these memories, we see how altruistic and kind she was, which also reminds Otto of the way he could be.

9. The setting must offer the protagonist opportunities to do good and bad—to be selfish and selfless. 

The setting of a morality story must offer the protagonist opportunities to be both altruistic and selfish. Throughout the story, they will make good and bad decisions, and they’ll either come out the other side a changed (and altruistic) person or they’ll cling to their selfish behavior and lose any of the goodness the plot brought their way.

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, almost every scene gives Otto the chance to be selfish or altruistic. He has the knowledge and experience to help his neighbors—and sometimes he does, but usually only to serve his own agenda. As the story progresses, he starts doing things for other people without being asked, and ultimately ends up recovering his moral compass by the end.

10. The ending of the story is often bittersweet. 

In a morality story, the ending is often bittersweet. And there’s usually an element of sacrifice, too. So, the protagonist either sacrifices for others and gains self-respect or they cling to their selfish behavior to get or keep whatever they’re worried about losing. If they do make a sacrifice for others, it does not require a witness. In fact, some of the most truly altruistic sacrifices are made in the absence of any fanfare or gratitude.

Case Study:

In A Man Called Otto, Otto has found a sense of meaning and belonging with Marisol, Tommy, and their children. He’s also reconciled with all of his neighbors, beaten the development company, and finally gone through his wife’s things. However, Otto does die at the end, so it’s truly bittersweet. 

Final Thoughts

You're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these conventions.

These are the character roles, settings, and micro-events that readers come to morality stories for. Everyone wants to see the big climactic moment where the protagonist has to choose between being selfish or selfless. It’s so rewarding and enjoyable!

So, to make a long story short, you don't leave these key scenes out. 

Find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways, and you'll gain fans for life. Many great morality stories stick with us because they include these conventions in an innovative way. You can do this, too!

👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing a morality story? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver the obligatory scenes of the genre?

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →