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What Is a Moral Dilemma?
A moral dilemma is a type of conflict that challenges a character’s sense of morality and purpose. Moral dilemmas, also known as ethical dilemmas, occur when a character is given a chance to achieve a goal or to solve an external conflict—however, the action available to them runs at odds with the character’s value system, effectively violating their own personal code of ethics. This dilemma sets off an episode of internal conflict, which can be the basis for a great story. Eventually, the protagonist will discover that their two types of conflict—external and internal—cannot be reconciled and a very difficult decision will be in order.
Using Moral Dilemmas as a Storytelling Tool
Moral dilemmas can serve as great jumping off points for your own novel, screenplay, and short story ideas. They work in all genres of creative writing, from thrillers to science fiction to romance stories to absurdist comedy. The fact is, we all must contend with ethical decision-making in real life, so when we encounter it in a book or on the screen, we instantly relate. Many good stories are rooted in a moral dilemma, so it can be a great place to start your own story brainstorm. It can also kickstart a new story if you’re otherwise dealing with writer’s block.
5 Types of Moral Dilemmas
By studying how moral dilemmas manifest in great books and movies, you can more easily weave them into the storylines of your own writing. Here are a few ways that story conflict can be driven by moral dilemmas:
- Obligation dilemmas: Make your character choose between competing obligations. This often works well in family dramas. Think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet must decide whether or not to remain loyal to Romeo after he kills her family member Mercutio. In Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Sophie’s backstory involves a grave ethical dilemma: When she was a prisoner in a concentration camp in Poland, she was forced to choose one of her children to live, while the other was left to perish. This haunts her even as she attempts to rebuild her life in Brooklyn. You can create your own conflicts with moral obligations.
- Prohibition dilemmas: These dilemmas involve characters who are expressly forbidden from doing a certain action but have reason to disobey their orders. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is specifically warned by Gandalf about the danger of wearing the ring of power. The effect it has on its wearer is too powerful. Despite this, Frodo must occasionally wear the ring to become invisible, and its power begins to seize him. Other famous characters who experience prohibition dilemmas include Harry Potter, Aladdin, and Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones.
- The dilemma of whether to stay silent: Some characters end up in a dilemma because they have information that might prove valuable to someone else, but they have compelling reasons to keep quiet. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who knows the truth about his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle, chooses to keep silent about this information for great lengths of time, despite the act being completely at odds with his ethics and moral philosophy. Much of Hamlet’s character arc involves processing the information and sharing it publicly with the perpetrators—his uncle and his mother.
- Crises of faith: Some stories are propelled by a character’s dilemma of whether to trust their faith or to bow before external forces. Crises of faith may arise when religious characters must confront human suffering, as is the case with Ivan Fyodorovitch in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Moral crises offer a bevy of moral issues, and they can easily sway a character’s decision-making.
- Deciding whether the ends justify the means: Many great stories have sprouted when a character’s moral reason is challenged by circumstances that present them with a task they would ordinarily deem immoral. Imagine a dystopian novel wherein a principled protagonist faces a situation where they can free captives by murdering a guard. The moral theory that guided the protagonist in the first place—that murder is always wrong—has been put to the test. Will the protagonist save innocent people by violating their own stance on murder? The more they struggle with the moral value of the decision, the more the audience digs in, anxious to know what happens.
5 Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Improve Your Storytelling
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A well-crafted moral dilemma will often improve your storytelling because it can connect your readers to the kind of ethical conundrums they often encounter in the real world. Every day, real people face moral dilemmas when their personal morality and point of view clashes with a municipal law, a company policy, or the prevailing beliefs of a group of people. Such clashes can weigh heavily on people. If you’re trying to incorporate a moral dilemma into your own writing for the first time, consider the following approaches:
- Create a character vs. society conflict. Make your protagonist’s self interest in conflict with the greater good of society.
- Create characters who go through moral growth. Let your main character spend a short time doing something that is morally wrong before having a change of heart.
- Write scenarios with life-or-death stakes. A scene featuring high stakes—passengers scrambling to get on a lifeboat, or multiple snakebite victims deciding who gets the one treatment of antivenin—makes for gripping literature.
- Center your ethical dilemma around a love story. Apart from life-or-death scenarios, emotional stakes are never higher than when love is involved.
- Show the consequences of a character ignoring their moral compass. A scene where a character makes a choice that they—and the audience—know is wrong can make for gripping drama.
Such approaches don’t guarantee your next novel will become a New York Times bestseller, but they are likely to foster a connection between your readers and your text, prompting deeper engagement with the characters and the story.
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