Those of you familiar with the TV Tropes morality pages probably know what Black and White, Gray on Grey and Blue and Orange Morality tropes are. There’s a lot to be said about them but that’s not what I want to do today. Rather, in the same vein, I want to talk about another fairly frequent morality trope I’ve noticed in fiction and we’re going to call it Green and Yellow Morality, or GYM for short. Some context.
The colors green and yellow identify two opposing groups of interplanetary soldiers in the DC Universe. One of these groups are the Green Lanterns. The name Green Lantern is an old one in comics, going back to the 40s, although the most commonly known Lantern, Hal Jordan, was introduced in the late 50s. Although it wasn’t a part of the original Lantern’s schtick; when Hal first received his ring and given the power of the Lantern Corps he was told that a central requirement was that he be fearless. Another was that he be honest but that’s not what’s important here – fearless. Focus on the fearless.
Many years later, after almost half a century of expanding lore and character development, the Green Lantern story would come to depict the Green Lantern’s fearlessness as an extension of their willpower. Will held fear, and many other emotions, in check and allowed the Lanterns to draw out the power of their rings and use it wisely.
Yellow, as most westerners already know, is a color usually associated with fear or, more specifically, cowardice. It’s also the color the writers chose for the Sinestro Corps, also known as the (surprise!) Yellow Lanterns, a group of spacefaring warriors led by a former Green Lantern who had embraced fear, at least as a weapon, and made rings that gathered it from others as a power source.
Where Green Lanterns tried to encourage strong wills making good decisions in all people Yellow Lanterns would terrorize others into letting them make all the decisions.
While it’s never expressly described as a moral system Green Lantern stories constantly imply that fear is a bad thing and willpower is the opposing good. For example, Hal is often at odds with Batman. Part of that is personalities but part of it is methodology – Batman frequently tries to terrify criminals out of their current lifestyles and that is anathema to Hal and the Green Lanterns. The Guardians of the Universe are often depicted as using their will to hold all emotion in check so as to make the clearest and best decisions but avoiding fear in particular. And the primary method to contain Parallax, an evil being that is fear incarnate, was to imprison it at the heart of the universe-spanning power source for the Green Lantern’s will channeling power rings.
Without ever using the terms “good” or “evil” the comics manage to create the idea that willpower and fear are opposing forces with moral implications. That brings us back to our focus today: Whenever a work of fiction takes attitudes or outlooks or emotions and assigns them moral qualities you have Green and Yellow Morality.
While I’ve chosen DC’s Green Lantern mythos to provide the name for this the trope happens more frequently than you might think and the most famous example isn’t in comic books. It’s Star Wars.
The dark side of the Force is created (or channeled?) by anger, fear and aggression while the light side advocates an almost ascetic state of calm and… well, the light side is actually never articulated as clearly as the dark side. It’s a “flow” I guess and it involves life somehow. Mostly it seems to be whatever isn’t anger, fear or aggression.
Now like all tropes, Green and Yellow Morality is a writer’s tool. There’s a lot of interesting stories to be told based on the conflict between differing mindsets, attitudes and personalities and Green and Yellow Morality can be used to spark those conflicts or just make sure they keep burning hot. They open up opportunities to show the humanity in characters as well.
Moral codes always come with the challenge of applying them to real world situations and the Green and Yellow is no exception. Green Lantern stories in particular have occasionally subverted the general tone of the series to show how Hal’s strong will can result in his making decisions without questioning them and get himself in trouble or put distance between him and people with less confidence. What he sees as his greatest virtues can also be vices. The struggle to properly apply virtue is a universal one.
In fact Sinestro was a Green Lantern who used his own fearlessness to create and stay on top of the Yellow Lanterns; in many ways completely inverting what it meant to be a Green Lantern entirely.
But attitudes or emotions as a moral code have critical failings as well. One critique Jedi philosophy gets a lot is that fear and anger are not negative in and of themselves – they are emotions that occur when something negative could happen or has happened around us. We are scared of getting hurt. We are angry after being hurt. The emotions serve as warnings of danger or prompt us to react to difficulty. Likewise, aggression is simply actively seeking to make something you want a reality.
If left unchecked emotions like fear or anger or attitudes like aggression can result in bad things. But the reality of human experience is that the clamping down on any of these things will create just as many problems as leaving them unchecked would. Frequently finding moral outcomes in situations fraught with strong emotions is less an exercise in drawing a spectrum from emotional response to totally controlled response and more an exercise in creating a Venn diagram of where emotion and self-control overlap and create good results. When both ends of your “moral spectrum” result in evil then it’s not really a spectrum, just a way of talking about what drives us.
What that means for writers seeking to use Green and Yellow Morality is pretty straightforward. Avoid the temptation to follow in Star Wars‘ footsteps and blatantly assign morality or immorality to specific emotions or attitudes. Instead, try and be more like the Green Lantern – let your leading characters strongly identify with the ends of the spectrum you want to build and then play up the strengths and shortcomings of each. Yes, some emotions and attitudes will lead to good outcomes more than others and there’s nothing wrong with showing that. But ultimately human emotions aren’t moral decisions, even if they are closely linked at times, and trying to write a story where they explicitly are moral will probably do more to undermine your story than help It.
Used with care Green and Yellow Morality is a great asset in focusing your story and setting the stage for conflict. Used carelessly and it just makes your story look slipshod.