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.


steven james featuredStoryTrumpsStructureThis guest post is by Steven James. James is the award-winning, bestselling author of 12 novels. He enjoys dark roast coffee and teaching storytelling around the world. His latest book on the craft of writing is Story Trumps Structure.

Learn more about James at stevenjames.net.

Also, follow him on Twitter @readstevenjames


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.

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For instance, a Mennonite pastor’s daughter is killed by a drunk driver. When the man is released on a technicality, does the minister forgive him (and what would that even look like?) or does he take justice into his own hands? In this case, his (1) pacifist beliefs are in conflict with his (2) desire for justice. What does he do?

Good question.

Good tension.

Good drama.

Another example: Your protagonist believes (1) that cultures should be allowed to define their own subjective moralities, but also (2) that women should be treated with the same dignity and respect as men. She can’t stand the thought of women being oppressed by the cultures of certain countries, but she also feels it’s wrong to impose her values on someone else. When she is transplanted to one of those countries, then, what does she do?

Construct situations in which your character’s equally strong convictions are in opposition to each other, and you will create occasions for thorny moral choices.

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Brainstorm a list of at least 10 inner demons your hero has to fight. Ten. Get creative. Then choose the best one. Work that demon into your hero’s backstory, and show how it is affecting him in the present—and could hinder him even further in the future. Give him actions that demonstrate the flaw.

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.

For example:

  • 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.

Guess what?

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 … ?”

(1) How far will Frank go to protect the one he loves?

(2) What would it take for him to stand by and watch the one he loves die when he has the power to save her?

(1) How far will Angie go to find freedom?

(2) What would it take for her to choose to be buried alive?

(1) How far will Detective Rodriguez go to pursue justice?

(2) What would it take for him to commit perjury and send an innocent person to death row?

Ask yourself: What does my character believe in? What priorities does she have? What prejudices does she need to overcome? Then, put her convictions to the ultimate test to make her truest desires and priorities come to the surface.

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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:

(1) Something that matters must be at stake.

(2) There’s no easy solution, no easy way out.

(3) Your character must make a choice. He must act.

(4) That choice deepens the tension and propels the story forward.

(5) 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?”

Key #4: Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre.

Examine your genre and allow it to influence the choices your character must face. For instance, crime stories naturally lend themselves to exploring issues of justice and injustice: At what point do revenge and justice converge? What does that require of this character? When is preemptive justice really injustice?

Love, romance and relationship stories often deal with themes of faithfulness and betrayal: When is it better to hide the truth than to share it? How far can you shade the truth before it becomes a lie? When do you tell someone a secret that would hurt him? For example, your protagonist, a young bride-to-be, has a one-night stand. She feels terrible because she loves her fiancé, but should she tell him what happened and shatter him—and perhaps lose him—or keep the truth hidden?

Fantasy, myth and science fiction are good venues for exploring issues of consciousness, humanity and morality: How self-aware does something need to be (an animal, a computer, an unborn baby) before it should be afforded the same rights as fully developed humans? At what point does destroying an AI computer become murder? Do we really have free will or are our choices determined by our genetic makeup and environmental cues?

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Key #5: Look for the Third Way.

You want your readers to be thinking, I have no idea how this is going to play out. And then, when they see where things go, you want them to be satisfied.

There’s a story in the Bible about a time religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her to Jesus. In those days, in that culture, adultery was an offense that was punishable by death. The men asked Jesus what they should do with this woman. Now, if Jesus had told them to simply let her go free he would have been contravening the law; if, however, he told them to put her to death, he would have undermined his message of “forgiveness and mercy.”

It seemed like a pretty good trap, until he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Nicely done.

I call this finding the Third Way. It’s a solution that’s consistent with the character’s attitude, beliefs and priorities, while also being logical and surprising.

We want the solutions that our heroes come up with to be unexpected and inevitable.

Present yours with a seemingly impossible conundrum.

And then help him find the Third Way out.


Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of 10 novels. He has a master’s degree in storytelling, has taught writing and creative storytelling on three continents, is a contributing editor to WD and loves putting his characters’ beliefs to the test.

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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16 thoughts on “5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better

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  2. MichaelEdits

    There was an episode of Kung Fu in which a religiously pacifist community was being abused. It asked the question, if a man is beating you with a stick, do you stand there and let him or do you fight back? The answer was, you take away his stick. Another example of The Third Way. Now if I can just study these five ways and use one or more of them to get me past the latest hump in my latest novel, I’ll be a happy chappy. Thanks for the advice.

  3. PeggyB

    PERFECT timing! This morning a writer friend suggested a MAJOR re-do of the beginning of my novel — which probably means adding 5 or 6 chapters — and this is how I will raise the tension and make that work! My mind is already churning.
    Thank you so much for this.

  4. danari

    It would help me to see more examples. As I try to figure out an internal conflict for a character, the idea of paying a vegan to eat steak is just too artificial to guide me toward good writing.

  5. Adan Ramie

    This article came at a great time for me. I’m less than a week out from pulling my manuscript out of the drawer where I’ve stashed it for the last month, and having a go at editing it for content, flow, and tension. I will be sure to keep these tips in mind for this and future stories. What a great resource!

  6. Ergo

    I just registered for WD online because of this article. Great stuff. You don’t mention memoir specifically, but I can certainly use this advice to finish my oeuvre. Thank you for articulating these ideas so clearly. It’s very helpful.

  7. Jordan Kopy

    What a fantastic article! I love the idea of including dueling motives / convictions, and especially the part about not “babying” your characters. I will be filing this one away as a reference for sure. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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