Let’s talk about dilemmas. And not the ‘should I have turkey or roast beef for lunch?’ dilemmas. No— the soul-wrenching, mettle-testing, conviction-straining make-or-break-a-character dilemmas.
You want mediocre, forgettable fiction? Then make your character choose between two good things (boring) or a bad thing and a good thing (easy). You want fiction that burrows into your readers’ brains and keeps them awake pondering the moral questions you’ve laid bare? Then force your characters to choose between two bad things.
And this can’t be any rock-and-a-hard place choice either; to make your fiction resonate, pinpoint who your character is on the deepest level, then cut to the quick of it. First, you must give your character beliefs, convictions, and worldviews. These can be ignorant and misguided or noble and aspirational; but no matter what, these beliefs must be your character’s foundation, their keystone.
Once you’ve settled on at least two deep-seated convictions, establish them by demonstrating (i.e. SHOWING) how they impact your character’s choices and actions. Now the fun part: take these two separate convictions and slam them into opposition with one another like a milk-drunk toddler crashing hot wheels.
Force your characters to choose between the conflicting parts of themselves. Does she choose loyalty to friends over duty to family? Does he value personal integrity over a fat paycheck from a corrupt employer?
Conviction can be tested one of two ways*. You can either bribe your characters or extort (threaten) them. Whichever you choose, you’re forcing your character into the worst decision of their life. Perfect. The harder the choice, the more meaningful the outcome.
I cheated for this post. I went the easy way by picking The Dark Knight (2008) to exemplify moral dilemmas. Why? Typically, a dilemma is incidental to the antagonist’s actions; for example, in Black Panther (2018), the titular hero is forced to examine his convictions (his people’s safety vs. helping the world community) because Killmonger is trying to seize control of Wakandan technology for his own agenda. Killmonger didn’t set out to test Black Panther— the moral quandary was merely a by-product of their conflict.
This isn’t as true for The Dark Knight. By the film’s end, the Joker’s main motive is to force Batman into a decision that tests the hero’s deepest convictions. In fact, the theme of personal conviction runs throughout the entire story, starting with its very first scene. As the Joker is leaving his bloody, successful bank heist, the manager says to him, “Criminals in this town used to believe in things: honor… respect. Look at you. What do you believe in?” This questions establishes the movie’s theme and sets the Joker as Batman’s foil.
Theme is a topic for another day, but remember that a story’s central dilemma is tied inexorably to its theme. When you force your characters into dilemmas, you’re also posing the question to your reader— this is your story’s theme. However, be sure you’re only articulating the question; let your story and your reader puzzle out the answer.
(Since most of you have probably seen The Dark Knight, I won’t summarize it here.)
When Joker poses his ultimatum— the real batman must turn himself in or more people will die— is when Batman faces his major moral dilemma. Two of his greatest convictions are now battling: his secret identity— and the the power it gives him to help Gotham as the city’s symbol— versus his desire to preserve individual human life. Before long, Batman begins to crack under the strain of his warring convictions:
“And I see now what I would have to become to stop men like him… I found my limit— I can’t endure this.”
As a storyteller, that’s exactly what you want. You want your readers (or audience) to be on the edge of their seats, worrying if the MC will betray one of his convictions.
Further complicating Batman’s quandary is a third, equally strong conviction: he refuses to kill. Batman won’t kill the Joker, even as the villain’s body-count grows ever higher. During the interrogation scene, this dilemma is clearly articulated:
B: “I only have one rule.”
J: “Then that’s the rule you’re going to have to break to get what you want.”
(This sticking point had been foreshadowed in an earlier scene when a crime boss tells Batman: “You got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules.”)
Then the Joker takes the central dilemma from general to personal; Batman must now choose between Harvey Dent, Gotham’s white knight, or Rachel Dawes, the woman he loves:
“Killing is making a choice. Choose between one life or the other. Your friend, the DA, or his blushing bride-to-be.”
The more personal you make the decision, the more emotional weight it will carry.
Batman alone isn’t enough for Joker; he wants to prove that no one can maintain their convictions when put under pressure. Regarding the moral integrity of the average person, the Joker says:
“You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”
At the film’s climax, the passengers of two ferries are given the choice: blow up the other boat and save yourself, or do nothing and both boats explode at midnight. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen this (10 year-old) movie, but as you might guess, the dilemmas aren’t all neatly resolved; the ending is bittersweet.
Dilemmas. They give your story meaning. Use them to hurt your characters.
And make sure they cut deep.
*Advice adapted from Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James.
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