Anyone who has taken a fiction writing course or worked in a critique group knows that our characters have to face moral choices in our work for the story to be truly engaging. The character needs to struggle with a difficult conundrum that will tell us something about her potential to rise above adversity and grow emotionally. The technique is most effective if the moral choice is something the reader can relate to on some level. Even when writing science fiction or fantasy, the story will be more enjoyable and interesting to the reader if the moral dilemmas faced by the characters are relatable. So if you set your story on Delta Prime and your main characters are little green aliens, they still have to be placed in situations that in some way can be analogized with something that might happen to Joe Smith back on good old planet earth.
While reading is a great form of escapism and I like to read books that take me far away from anything that I would face in my real life, I still need enough grounding to make me care about the characters and the decisions they make. This goes for murder mysteries, romance, erotica, literary fiction, and just about any other genre I can think of. The reader wants to be transported, but not so far that she can’t relate to tough decisions the characters are forced to make.
Some of the best fiction will have the reader sympathizing – or at least empathizing – with a character who may objectively seem to be a “bad guy”. In Patrick de Witt’s recent novel, The Sisters Brothers, for example, the main character is a hired assassin in the wild west. He’s a simple man with a simple philosophy of life. But he knows he’s not satisfied with the way his life is going, he has a vague sense of where he wants to be, and he spends much of the novel struggling in both a horrifically violent and comically naïve manner to get to where he wants to go in life. Even though he does terrible things, the reader can understand why he does them and can question whether, in his shoes, they may have done the same thing. He’s faced with many moral choices that involve following his violent brother further down their current career path or turning away and doing something for himself. And the reader is with him every step of the way. The reader may question his choices and his actions, but at the same time will relate to his situation.
Much of the current craze for dystopian young adult fiction exemplifies a similar paradigm. A lead character is placed in a world that isn’t right and ultimately comes to question whether it’s safer to go with the flow or to defy the society and make changes. This is exactly what Katniss Everdeen is forced to do throughout the Hunger Games trilogy. She makes moral choices which engage the reader and make us question what we would do in her place. Even though many of us would never have volunteered to take our sister’s place in the Games, we understand why Katniss does, we relate to her predicament and then all the moral choices that follow – who she should trust, who she should team up with, whether she should defy the society etc.
So how does an author go about constructing a powerful moral choice for her characters? I suspect that one of the keys is not to get hung up on how “big” the choice has to be. While the examples I set out above involve fairly “large” choices in the sense of being major life decisions for the characters, a moral choice can be as simple as “should I lie about who broke my mother’s favorite vase”? Drama and conflict can come from anywhere.
A friend in a writers’ workshop constructed a scene revolving around her main character. In the context of the scene, the character was destitute and impoverished having lost his job. The whole scene revolved around him sitting in a McDonalds and deciding whether he should swallow his pride and steal table scraps because he was hungry and had no food. The scene was riveting even though his moral choice was objectively a “small” one in the grand scheme of the story.
While erotic romance is not everyone’s cup of tea, E.L. James uses moral choices to great effect in her popular Fifty Shades trilogy. Should her heroine, Anastasia Steele, follow the hero, Christian Grey, down the rabbit hole of his particular sexual lifestyle? If she does, she’s afraid she will lose something of herself by turning to this dark life. If she doesn’t, she won’t get the chance to challenge him and touch him emotionally. If she wasn’t faced with the choice in the first book, and didn’t struggle with her decision and ultimately act on it, there would be no story. It would simply be a series of erotic sex scenes, which may be fun for some readers but wouldn’t have led to the immense general popularity the series has enjoyed in the marketplace.
In my own writing, I’ve realized that I do tend toward the “big” moral choices and would like to learn how to make more effective use of smaller moral choices throughout the story to more effectively develop the main character’s journey and engage the reader more fully. In my futuristic science fiction story, Destiny, for example, the main character, a middle-aged man, resists peer pressure from his friends to undergo the “Transition” – a procedure for uploading his consciousness into a machine so he can live forever. He’s torn between preserving his humanity and following the future of the human race. I enjoyed writing about this choice because to me it was an allegory for who we decide to be as individuals, even when society is pressuring us to be something else. However, the story might have been more effective – and probably longer! – if my character had faced a number of related smaller moral choices before having to engage with the big one.
As writers, we have to give our characters moral dilemmas – big and small – to allow them to grow and develop emotionally and to create conflict and tension in our stories. Our initial premise may begin with the idea of a moral choice, or we may be more character-driven writers who just let the character move on the page until her moral choices emerge organically. But whichever approach we take, the drama won’t be there without the moral questions. Consciously thinking about them and identifying them at some point in the writing process, whether earlier or later, will make the story much stronger and help the reader fully engage with our characters.
K C Maguire writes flash fiction, science fiction and mystery/romance short stories and is currently working on her first young adult science fiction/adventure novel. She has taken courses in writing at the Stanford and UCLA online writers studios and is a member of the Katy Critique Group in Houston, TX. She is a member of SCBWI as well as being a wife and mother of three children and three cats. She has published flash pieces in publications such as Black Petals Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Everyday Fiction, Writers Type, Midlife Collage, Six Minute Magazine, and Delta Women. Her stories, Destiny and Dear John, are available on amazon.com. Watch out for her forthcoming dark romance story, Ivory Tower.
In earth's future, humans are becoming more like robots and robots are becoming more human. As Joe Baker's friends and family undergo the Transition - a procedure enabling humans to upload their personalities into robotic replicas - Joe discovers that his android companion, Destiny, is developing sentience. And falling in love with him.
Joe's conflicted feelings about becoming a machine and his growing fondness for Destiny confuse him about his own future. His best friend, Cutler, is pressuring him to transition before it's too late. Does Cutler know more than he's saying?
If Joe Transitions, he can be with Destiny forever, but at what cost? As he pursues his options, Joe learns some startling truths about the Transition and the nature of humanity ... and love.
Buy Destiny at Amazon.