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Give Characters Moral Dilemmas

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Characterisation

A moral dilemma raises the stakes, complicates reasoning and makes it hard for your readers to predict what will happen next – what more could you want from a plot device that delves deep into your characterisation and sense of moral compass? And it is not all that hard to achieve – just look at some of the ways you can introduce a moral dilemma into your narrative and heighten the tension instantly!


What Exactly is a Moral Dilemma?


A moral, or ethical, dilemma is a plot device that acts as a type of conflict, challenging your character’s sense of morality. It tends to reveal itself as allowing the character to achieve something they want but at the cost of their own set of principles, creating internal conflict as they need to decide whether compromising on their values or code of ethics is worth the resulting reward. This is usually a very difficult decision not taken lightly and can cause internal and external ramifications later in the story.



Why Use Moral Dilemmas?


When a reader relates to either the specific moral dilemma, unable to weigh the options easily themselves, or simply connects to the character when they are torn by understanding the conflict, the story reaches a new level of affiliation between story and reader. This is a major goal, as we want our readers to be personally affected and drawn in by our words. Everyone has their own moral compass, and using an ethical conundrum is an effective method of involve readers who will instantly reflect on their own. Additionally, moral dilemmas add tension, drama and gut-feelings that take down the risk of being a bore.



Duelling Loyalties and Obligations


There is no simpler way of achieving a moral dilemma by having your character feel obligated to follow two opposing routes – an impossible feat and therefore requires them to decide who will they betray. Will Juliet remain loyal to her family, or let her love for Romeo – who murdered a family member – take precedence? If you have the reader themselves debating which is the right route - deciding between head and heart, desire and duty - you have secured a place in their memory forever as that story that challenged them.



The Trolley Problem


This takes the form of staying true to your morals at the expense of the greater good. Depending on the story, it could then be perceived as being a selfish vs. selfless tussle, or a struggle between being pro-active and being blameless. A well-known example of this is the Trolley Problem – if a trolley is hurtling towards six innocent people, should a you (a bystander) pull a lever which changes the trolley’s route towards one innocent person instead? By pulling the level, a person would be actively causing another’s death and therefore be committing murder. However, through inaction they allow the deaths of six. After years of debate, there is no straight-forward answer to this problem and begs the overall question if the ends justify the means. Could you create a similar scenario?



Put You Character’s Convictions to The Test


It is one thing for your character to claim ethical beliefs and another when faced with following through. Establish your character’s values in an earlier setting that appear to be absolute, then put them into a situation where they are not comfortable with a reality of such a belief. A WWII soldier who was raised to think the enemy deserved to be killed may not be so certain when pointing a gun at a scared, unarmed opponent who is now humanised. Whether you intend the reader to support one way or the other, the inner battle and admittance that their claims were not nearly as rock-solid as once thought makes for intriguing reading.



Force Your Character into a Corner


Often in the real world people avoid moral dilemmas by avoiding situations in which they may have to face them. Steadily heightening the drama, a writer should remove alternative solutions one at a time, effectively pushing a character into a corner where there is no escape from having to face their own sense of right and wrong. A hero who wants to avoid killing by capturing the villain and throws them in jail may think they have the right solution. Fantastic! But what would they do all routes to a safe and secure capture were gone and instead they were backed them into a ‘kill or be killed’ scenario? How would the moral compass move if they had to choose between killing and letting the villain escape to cause more devastation? Forcing these sort of questions to be answered - and perhaps looked back on with regret - ups the ante in a way readers will find impossible to turn away from.



Give a ‘This or That’ Scenario with a Shock Third Option


Let’s return to the trolley problem: our readers are led to believe through the narrative that their hero has to make a choice between two: allow six innocent people to die by trolley by doing nothing or pulling a lever and causing the death of one. For most, there is no truly ethical solution. That is, until our hero chooses neither, but instead hurls themselves into the path of the trolley. By sacrificing themselves, they upend the trolley and save all innocent lives previously at risk. If written correctly, readers will be blind sighted by a shocking third option which incites some kind of emotional reaction. That isn’t to say the protagonist needs to suffer or sacrifice, but rather see an alternative that is not immediately noticeable.

Let Your Genre Be Your Guide


If you are struggling to work out what type of dilemma would be in keeping with your story, let the genre guide you. For example, romance fiction generally lens itself well to the themes of love, loyalty, betrayal. Protagonists can find themselves questioning if truth is more important than avoiding hurt, such as when admitting infidelity would destroy another person. Horror scenes can hit readers hard with a choice between saving yourself and risking your safety to help another in real danger. At what point does a reader think less of a character for running away from a crime-in-progress, and wouldn’t the character also question their own actions later? Science-fiction blurs the line between humanity and technological advancement, and poses the question how far should we go in the name of science. Whatever your genre, there will be relatable moral dilemmas that will compliment the plot in a sensible and engrossing manner.


A moral dilemma raises the stakes, complicates reasoning and makes it hard for your readers to predict what will happen next – what more could you want from a plot device that delves deep into your characterisation and sense of moral compass? And it is not all that hard to achieve – just look at some of the ways you can introduce a moral dilemma into your narrative and heighten the tension instantly!


What Exactly is a Moral Dilemma?


A moral, or ethical, dilemma is a plot device that acts as a type of conflict, challenging your character’s sense of morality. It tends to reveal itself as allowing the character to achieve something they want but at the cost of their own set of principles, creating internal conflict as they need to decide whether compromising on their values or code of ethics is worth the resulting reward. This is usually a very difficult decision not taken lightly and can cause internal and external ramifications later in the story.



Why Use Moral Dilemmas?


When a reader relates to either the specific moral dilemma, unable to weigh the options easily themselves, or simply connects to the character when they are torn by understanding the conflict, the story reaches a new level of affiliation between story and reader. This is a major goal, as we want our readers to be personally affected and drawn in by our words. Everyone has their own moral compass, and using an ethical conundrum is an effective method of involve readers who will instantly reflect on their own. Additionally, moral dilemmas add tension, drama and gut-feelings that take down the risk of being a bore.



Duelling Loyalties and Obligations


There is no simpler way of achieving a moral dilemma by having your character feel obligated to follow two opposing routes – an impossible feat and therefore requires them to decide who will they betray. Will Juliet remain loyal to her family, or let her love for Romeo – who murdered a family member – take precedence? If you have the reader themselves debating which is the right route - deciding between head and heart, desire and duty - you have secured a place in their memory forever as that story that challenged them.



The Trolley Problem


This takes the form of staying true to your morals at the expense of the greater good. Depending on the story, it could then be perceived as being a selfish vs. selfless tussle, or a struggle between being pro-active and being blameless. A well-known example of this is the Trolley Problem – if a trolley is hurtling towards six innocent people, should a you (a bystander) pull a lever which changes the trolley’s route towards one innocent person instead? By pulling the level, a person would be actively causing another’s death and therefore be committing murder. However, through inaction they allow the deaths of six. After years of debate, there is no straight-forward answer to this problem and begs the overall question if the ends justify the means. Could you create a similar scenario?



Put You Character’s Convictions to The Test


It is one thing for your character to claim ethical beliefs and another when faced with following through. Establish your character’s values in an earlier setting that appear to be absolute, then put them into a situation where they are not comfortable with a reality of such a belief. A WWII soldier who was raised to think the enemy deserved to be killed may not be so certain when pointing a gun at a scared, unarmed opponent who is now humanised. Whether you intend the reader to support one way or the other, the inner battle and admittance that their claims were not nearly as rock-solid as once thought makes for intriguing reading.



Force Your Character into a Corner


Often in the real world people avoid moral dilemmas by avoiding situations in which they may have to face them. Steadily heightening the drama, a writer should remove alternative solutions one at a time, effectively pushing a character into a corner where there is no escape from having to face their own sense of right and wrong. A hero who wants to avoid killing by capturing the villain and throws them in jail may think they have the right solution. Fantastic! But what would they do all routes to a safe and secure capture were gone and instead they were backed them into a ‘kill or be killed’ scenario? How would the moral compass move if they had to choose between killing and letting the villain escape to cause more devastation? Forcing these sort of questions to be answered - and perhaps looked back on with regret - ups the ante in a way readers will find impossible to turn away from.



Give a ‘This or That’ Scenario with a Shock Third Option


Let’s return to the trolley problem: our readers are led to believe through the narrative that their hero has to make a choice between two: allow six innocent people to die by trolley by doing nothing or pulling a lever and causing the death of one. For most, there is no truly ethical solution. That is, until our hero chooses neither, but instead hurls themselves into the path of the trolley. By sacrificing themselves, they upend the trolley and save all innocent lives previously at risk. If written correctly, readers will be blind sighted by a shocking third option which incites some kind of emotional reaction. That isn’t to say the protagonist needs to suffer or sacrifice, but rather see an alternative that is not immediately noticeable.

Let Your Genre Be Your Guide


If you are struggling to work out what type of dilemma would be in keeping with your story, let the genre guide you. For example, romance fiction generally lens itself well to the themes of love, loyalty, betrayal. Protagonists can find themselves questioning if truth is more important than avoiding hurt, such as when admitting infidelity would destroy another person. Horror scenes can hit readers hard with a choice between saving yourself and risking your safety to help another in real danger. At what point does a reader think less of a character for running away from a crime-in-progress, and wouldn’t the character also question their own actions later? Science-fiction blurs the line between humanity and technological advancement, and poses the question how far should we go in the name of science. Whatever your genre, there will be relatable moral dilemmas that will compliment the plot in a sensible and engrossing manner.


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