The Moral Dilemma

Woman with bookI’m often asked what makes a story great. We all have different definitions of greatness in fiction. But if you peel back the layers of the definitions, I think you’ll find emotion at the core.

Something in the story grabs our heart and keeps us reading. Even in thrillers and suspense, those stories that keep us up all night, turning pages, the author has to grab us. We have to care about the character and about his outcome.

Will he achieve his goal?

At what cost?

How do we make the reader care about this?

We give the hero a moral dilemma, a decision to make. A choice that requires him to give up something in orderquest marks man leaning to achieve something else. Not a compromise. But a hard, black-and-white conflict to resolve.

One of the best ways to do this is to have the hero’s core values come into such strong conflict, the character has to choose between them. Give them no way out.

In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, I place my hero, Michael Archer, in just such a situation. At the beginning of the story, Michael makes a promise to reconcile a son about to be hanged with his estranged father. A prodigal son by proxy.

One of Michael’s core values is to always keep his word.

By building Michael’s character in depth through character interviews and journaling, I introduced his belief that he killed his father and, his life before coming to Jesus was filled with violence. The new Michael vows never to kill again.

At the end of the story, Michael is faced with the situation that to keep his promise to complete the reconciliation, he must kill someone.

Journey To Riverbend (cover)In writing to this climatic scene, I planted enough seeds so the reader knows these values are very much at Michael’s core. I included scenes or bits of backstory showing both of these core elements in action.

But I never bring them into open conflict until the final pages. And then, I leave his decision until the last possible moment.

How have you used conflicting values to create a moral dilemma for your hero?



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