Bottom line: Do you like the morality chain trope?
Erin: PUT IT IN MY VEINS
Ingrid: I have found that I really did like a lot of books that follow this trope, yes.
Holly: We are having this whole week focusing on morality chain romances because every time Erin is like, “REC ME SOME MORALITY CHAIN!” I’m like “What’s that again? Remind me.” I’ll get back to you after I do my research reading.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as morality chain trope?
Erin: Okay, so because these are my jam, I will go first. The basic definition is that protagonist one is the reason that protagonist two is good. It might be like the most extreme version of grumpy/sunshine you can imagine, but I typically think of it more like one is ruthlessly pragmatic and jaded while the other refuses to bend any principles, even when it might be, like, life-saving to do so.
In a lot of speculative romance (read: sci-fi and fantasy) it’s often waaaaaaay obvious, with a dystopian world and a protagonist who is essentially an emotionless husk, and then the other protagonist who is sensitive and nurturing. Typically these even go so far as to require no emotional change in the amoral character except that the amoral protagonist will not take certain actions because they know it would upset the love interest (please see: Kaleb Krychek). But if we step away from the very clear-cut characterization that we often get in those stories, there’s still room for this trope in other sub-genres. In that case, the trope might not be quite so glaringly obvious, but the basics are the same: ruthless protagonist refuses to see the humanity in themselves or the world around them while the love interest forces the issue.
I do not consider a book to be morality chain when the amoral protagonist isn’t actually amoral but instead is simply really grumpy or selfish but has a good heart deep down. If the good heart is readily apparent to the reader at the outset, the trope is not morality chain. Also, protagonists who are just jerks (please see: alpha-holes) also do not usually count for morality chain because they usually…stay jerks.
Ingrid: Yes, so what Erin said. It’s like a darkness and light situation.
Holly: A small addendum: there might be some gender essentialism going on with this trope. The amoral character is almost always male, and the empathetic / humanizing character is almost always female.
What do you think is fun about the trope?
Erin: If I really dig deep and consider this, the draw for me probably stems from the fact that the amoral protagonist doesn’t actually have to change as such. They simply change their behavior because they have learned that their actions have more impact than just the bottom line. Nalini Singh has some great morality chain stories in which the amoral protagonists don’t change their personalities or understanding of the world much at all, but learn to check themselves. (I already mentioned Kaleb Krychek, who’s in Heart of Obsidian, but also there’s Raphael in Angel’s Blood and Zaira in Shards of Hope.) But also sometimes it’s a charming growth opportunity for the emotionless husk. I’m an equal opportunity morality chain reader.
Ingrid: I mean, let’s be real here—this is essentially the foil to “you can’t change him!” Right? And we all want to be the exception, so it’s a very satisfying vicarious situation.
Holly: Sometimes the villain is sexier than the hero. Just sayin’.
What do you find problematic about the trope?
Erin: I mean. I guess it makes assholes sexy. Like, “Ooo, look! The partner had the magic something that finally made that person not terrible! #RelationshipGoals!” Which in real life is not a great mentality, but I do enjoy it in my fiction.
Ingrid: Well, being the person who is responsible for pulling someone else up out of darkness seems like a pretty dangerous job, and a relationship that’s built on one person being the moral foundation is…likely imbalanced and unhealthy. To say the least. But that doesn’t mean it’s not some good, good reading.
Holly: What Ingrid said. Taming the monster might be fun and sexy, but being someone’s moral compass for years and years and years? Let’s not think about what happens after the story ends.
Erin: (I usually think of it in terms of the Kaleb Krycheck/Sahara dynamic where at the end of the day she’s like, “You’re so cute, you think you’re bad. I’m not going to play that game because it’s a crock,” which is slightly less bad than “I will keep the darkness at bay for you.” Slightly.)
Let’s talk about this gender essentialism.
Holly: So, Erin sent me a list of morality chain books because I like it when other people do my research for me, and the only one on the list with a female “dark” character was Shards of Hope, which is book eleventy-million in the Psy-Changeling series, so I haven’t read it. So it seems like pretty much all of the people in need of moral guidance are the male main characters.
And of course, there are lots of tropes that apply to members of one gender more frequently than another, but let’s unpack this a little bit. What it really boils down to are these are stories about women doing outsized levels of emotional labor because the men in their lives are *incapable* of doing so (and in the paranormal romances, they are *genetically* incapable of doing so).
Erin: This seems to tie in to the question of “what are we reading for?” because y’all make a good point above that in real life the prospect of being a moral anchor for another person is not a healthy relationship dynamic and likely would be exhausting.
Anyway, Holly sent me this absolutely hilarious review of Shards of Hope, and TL;DR the reviewer hated Zaira. I went back and checked to see if the same reviewer had rated Heart of Obsidian, and – Hello! – she loved Kaleb. Both books are by Nalini Singh, who has a really consistent writing style, both are morality chain with Psy protagonists who have no moral anchor except their one emotional connection. It’s been a while since I read them, but I think the only big differences from a characterization standpoint are that Kaleb is more broody/angsty and a man, while Zaira is angry/angsty and a woman. (And Kaleb did get built up for 10 books first, which does matter, but let’s just say for the sake of argument…)
Having a woman protagonist as the amoral character in this trope seems to run into the “unlikeable heroine” problem, and if readers are trying to tap into a pleasure center with a story about a woman who can tame a man, it makes sense that the opposite dynamic wouldn’t be quite as popular or as saleable. Personally, I enjoyed Zaira’s characterization, and I’d like to see more stories that play with this trope (like some queer rep would be fun, yes?), but I also wonder if the writers who would play with it also maybe don’t care for the trope because it involves the emotional and power dynamics issues discussed above.
Ingrid: I agree with Erin, in that I feel like from a societal standpoint we tend to accommodate or even celebrate masculine characters lacking a moral anchor but when it’s a feminine one they become more unlikeable. Which, is like the literary equivalent of “you should smile more” and we should cut that crap right on out of here.
What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?
Erin: Ugh this one book thing again. A lot of morality chain books are part of a series (I cannot wait to read Lothaire, but I am being very good and I have to read nine other books first!), which I think makes it challenging to simply throw one out there. For a gentle classic, I’d suggest Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas. Evie is initially so unassuming but refuses to bend on what’s important to her, and St. Vincent is a selfish man-child who only cares about what’s important to him, and there’s a sex deal, and St. Vincent gets the shit kicked out of him by love (to borrow the immortal words of that little kid from Love, Actually).
If we’re cool with possibly committing to a series without committing to 12-20 books, I would totally recommend the Nevada Baylor trilogy from Ilona Andrews’s Hidden Legacy series. In the first book, Burn for Me, Nevada is not totally sure if Connor is, in fact, a sociopath. As the series continues, we get more three-dimensional views of Connor, but in the first book he is totally willing to use his magic however he can to get the most efficient desired outcome. This includes, at one point, dropping a building on a person. The world building is magnificent, and the action is *chef’s kiss.*
Holly: Movies are allowed now, so I’m going with Lady and the Tramp.
Erin: I’ve opened a can of worms.
Ingrid: Well, if we’re going to do that look no further than Dexter. Romance wise…
Holly: No, but seriously, Lady and the Tramp is just a stepping stone for the story that the right woman can tame the bad boy—and that he won’t necessarily stop being bad (so he’s still sexy), but will control his urges to chase chickens or flirt with the other lady dogs because they hurt his partner.
Addendum: Now that I’ve done my research reading, I also would like to recommend Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt because Valentine Napier is so delightfully villainous and has literally no concept of absolute morality. (I’ll squee some more about this one in a review later this week.)
Books we mention in our discussion:
Every book we’ve talked about with a morality chain trope can be found here.
Have a favorite morality chain book? Know of any morality chain books featuring queer couples or female main characters in need of redemption? Want to talk about how villains are sexy? Leave us a note in the comments!