5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better
Readers can’t resist turning pages when characters are facing tough choices. Use these 5 keys to weave moral dilemmas into your stories—and watch your fiction climb to new heights.
By Steven James
Key #1: Give Your Character Dueling Desires
Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.
A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.
So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.
For example: A woman wants (1) peace in her home and (2) openness between her and her husband. So, when she begins to suspect that he’s cheating on her, she’ll struggle with trying to decide whether or not to confront him about it. If she only wanted peace she could ignore the problem; if she only wanted openness she would bring it up regardless of the results. But her dueling desires won’t allow her such a simple solution.
That creates tension.
And tension drives a story forward.
So, find two things that your character is dedicated to and then make him choose between them. Look for ways to use his two desires to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.
Key #2: Put Your Character’s Convictions to the Test
We don’t usually think of it this way, but in a very real sense, to bribe someone is to pay him to go against his beliefs; to extort someone is to threaten him unless he goes against them.
- How much would you have to pay the vegan animal rights activist to eat a steak (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten her in order to coerce her into doing it (extortion)?
- What would it cost to get the loving, dedicated couple to agree never to see each other again (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten them to get them to do so (extortion)?
- What would you need to pay the pregnant teenage Catholic girl to convince her to have an abortion (bribery)? What threat could you use to get her to do it (extortion)?
Look for ways to bribe and extort your characters. Don’t be easy on them. As writers we sometimes care about our characters so much that we don’t want them to suffer. As a result we might shy away from putting them into difficult situations.
That’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for our fiction to be compelling.
What’s the worst thing you can think of happening to your character, contextually, within this story? Now, challenge yourself—try to think of something else just as bad, and force your character to decide between the two.
Plumb the depths of your character’s convictions by asking, “How far will s/he go to … ?” and “What would it take for … ?”
Key #3: Force Your Character Into a Corner
Don’t give him an easy out. Don’t give him any wiggle room. Force him to make a choice, to act. He cannot abstain. Take him through the process of dilemma, choice, action and consequence:
- Something that matters must be at stake.
- There’s no easy solution, no easy way out.
- Your character must make a choice. He must act.
- That choice deepens the tension and propels the story forward.
- The character must live with the consequences of his decisions and actions.
If there’s an easy solution there’s no true moral dilemma. Don’t make one of the choices “the lesser of two evils”; after all, if one is lesser, it makes the decision easier.
For example, say you’ve taken the suggestion in the first key above and forced your character to choose between honoring equal obligations. He could be caught between loyalty to two parties, or perhaps be torn between his family obligations and his job responsibilities. Now, raise the stakes—his marriage is at risk and so is his job, but he can’t save them both. What does he do?
The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement. To achieve this, ask “What if?” and the questions that naturally follow:
- What if she knows that being with the man she loves will cause him to lose his career? How much of her lover’s happiness would she be willing to sacrifice to be with him?
- What if an attorney finds herself defending someone she knows is guilty? What does she do? What if that person is her best friend?
- What if your character has to choose between killing himself or being forced to watch a friend die?
Again, make your character reevaluate his beliefs, question his assumptions and justify his choices. Ask yourself: How is he going to get out of this? What will he have to give up (something precious) or take upon himself (something painful) in the process?
Explore those slippery slopes. Delve into those gray areas. Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer, such as: “Is killing the innocent ever justified?” Instead, frame the question in a way that forces you to take things deeper: “When is killing the innocent justified?” Rather than, “Does the end justify the means?” ask, “When does the end justify the means?”
The other two items are:
- Key #4: Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre
- Key #5: Look for the Third Way.
For information on these steps and the a little more about the other three, go to http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/5-moral-dilemmas-that-make-characters-stories-better?et_mid=694352&rid=239626420