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Monday, January 14

Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Moral ambiguity can bring a lot to a novel.


For me, writing is a bit of a psychological experiment. I love creating morally gray situations and seeing how my characters react to them. What they do, what lines they cross, how far they’re really willing to go to get what they want. It’s a wonderful way to learn who they are and tell a richer story.

When situations aren’t so back and white, it gives us more opportunities to explore our story’s themes and characters. We can push boundaries to make a point or illustrate an idea. We can raise tensions and provide the emotional depth that keep readers invested. Life is messy, so why not take advantage of that with the tales we tell?

Here are three ways moral dilemmas can benefit your novel:

1. They Provide Inherent Conflict Both Internally, and Externally


internal and external conflict, choices, impossible choices
Force characters to make hard choices
In my fantasy adventure trilogy The Healing Wars, I experiment with how far someone might go to save a family member. My heroine, Nya, discovers her little sister Tali has disappeared and she has to find her and get her back. A simple premise, but what made this especially interesting to me is that Nya has the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person. To help someone, she has to hurt someone else. I pushed this idea even further by forcing Nya to choose between hurting others and saving her sister.

To blur the moral line even more, Nya’s shifting ability can also get her into trouble if she uses it. Her city is under enemy occupation, and if the soldiers find out she can shift pain, they’ll capture her and use her as a weapon against her own people. She’s really stuck–risk herself, risk strangers, risk friends, risk family. No matter what she chooses, someone is going to suffer for it. There are no moral right answers for her.

Maybe it’s my dark side coming out, but putting my characters into tough situations to see what they’ll do makes the first draft more interesting. How far can I push Nya before she digs in her heels and says no way? Can I make her do what she swore she’d never do? Can I force her to make a horrible choice she deeply regrets, then force her to do it again?

(Here’s more on using internal and external conflicts)

2. They Keep the Outcomes Unpredictable


character choices, hooks, unpredicatable, twists
Choices add unpredictability
When choices are easy in a story, it’s clear how the characters will decide. Giving my characters impossible choices makes it more unpredictable–both for me and my readers. They never know where a choice might lead, but they’re pretty sure it’ll end badly for someone. And when my protagonist does make a hard decision, readers cringe right along with her.

For example, early on in the novel there’s a terrible accident and hundreds of people are injured. Afterward, Nya meets a boy who needs her help. His father was injured in the accident and is dying, and the boy needs Nya to heal him and shift his pain. The catch? She has to shift it into this boy and his younger brothers and sister (very young, 10 and 8). Does Nya hurt children to save their father? Risk trading their lives for his? And this request comes with the offer of food and a place to sleep for the night. Something Nya desperately needs at that point in the story. No matter what choice Nya makes, there are serious consequences.

(Here’s more on how impossible choices help hook readers)

3. They Help Readers Relate and Connect to the Characters


make readers care, make characrers likable
Make your readers cares
Having the protagonist in a moral dilemma also makes readers consider what they’d do in the same situation. Would they make the same choice Nya does? The same sacrifice? Would they walk away?

Getting readers to put themselves in the character’s shoes draws them deeper into the story, and the more they lose themselves in the tale, the more likely they are to enjoy that tale.

(Here’s more on making readers care about our characters)

Exploring the moral gray area is central to all my stories. My miniature studies of human nature, even if I’m the one making up all those humans. Hmm…do you suppose it’s really a study of me? Maybe my dark side is stronger than I thought.

Do you play with moral dilemmas in your novels? Do you have any favorites to read or write? 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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