When it comes to stories for adults and stories for children, there’s not much in it. But children are faced with different moral dilemmas.
What Is A Moral Dilemma?
First, Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘MORAL dilemma’:
A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.
— Donald Maass
Janice Hardy calls the moral dilemma the ‘impossible choice‘. Hardy advises writers to include at least one impossible choice per story, even if the story isn’t overtly about that (e.g. Sophie’s Choice).
Karl Iglesias in his book Writing For Emotional Impact has this to say about moral dilemmas:
Dilemmas create emotional anguish for characters, which in turn challenges readers to consider what they would do if the dilemma were theirs. Our anguish may not be as acute, as we’re one step removed, but we twist our hands anyway. That is, we twist them if the dilemma is truly difficult.
Dilemmas, then, work best when the stakes are both high and personal. When one choice is morally right, it will win out unless it is offset by a different choice that is equally compelling in personal terms. Law versus love. Tell the truth or protect the innocent. Be honest or be kind. When there’s no way to win in a story, the winner is us.
The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you’ll engage the reader in thinking about it and therefore compel them to read on to find out how the story turns out.
Parables always feature a moral dilemma. The main character faces a moral dilemma, makes a bad decision then suffered the unintended consequences
Making Use Of Moral Dilemmas In Writing
Karl Iglesias recommends the following breakdown for creating mystery around characters:
Create a mysterious past
Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.
Create a mysterious present
Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires.
This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.
Create a mysterious future
What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?
Examples Of Moral Dilemmas In Stories For Adults
No one talks about moral dilemmas in fiction without mentioning this film. In this story, the moral dilemma is the main thing. It’s right there in the title. In desperate circumstances, on the spur of the moment, a mother has to decide between sacrificing her son or her daughter. This decision is presented as a flashback story using her present non-wartime life as a wrapper.
Jeffrey Eugenide’s book of short stories is about men who don’t know how to behave in a more egalitarian world:
It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behavior. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.
This lesser known film from 1996 explores the dilemma of a woman having to kill an innocent man in cold blood so that she can survive a hostage situation. Compare this to a film such as Kidnap (2017) in which Halle Berry’s young son gets taken. Here there is no moral dilemma as she goes all out to get her son back, causing serious car accidents and even killing a cop. In this story it is taken for granted that a mother WOULD go all out for her son.
The detective/crime genre is great for presenting police officers with daily moral dilemmas. There’s a reason shows about fire fighters aren’t as easy to do (though it has been done in Chicago Fire and Rescue Me). That’s because there is no real moral dilemma when it comes to human against fire. It is the fire fighter’s job to get humans out of a burning building. In fire fighting shows that work, the moral dilemmas won’t happen in the blaze — they’ll happen at the station, where there is conflict between fire fighters themselves. The other lesson here is that ‘fire’ is an opponent but not a human one, and therefore extinguishing it presents no moral dilemma. Every viewer agrees, conflagrations should be extinguished. This is precisely the reason why nature doesn’t make for a good main opponent, even in a disaster story — there’s no moral dilemma for the main characters.
Crime writer Jo Nesbo has this to say about the approach he takes to his stories:
I give my protagonists moral dilemmas and force them to make a choice. And I try not to be the judge of the choice they make. One of the big questions I try to ask is, what is free will? What is morality? Is it something God-given, or is it a framework that society has imposed on us to make us more efficient?
Even in stories for children, writers must ultimately let the audience decide whether the character was right to have made the decision they made.
Moral Dilemmas In Stories For Children
To lie or not to lie?
Lying and truth telling are hugely prominent themes in middle grade books in particular. Developmentally, this is when young readers start to question black and white rules about telling the truth.
Anne Shirley has been taught not to lie, yet she finds herself having to do exactly that when she is forced to apologise to Rachel Lynde even though she’s not the slightest bit sorry. In the end it is Matthew who teaches Anne that sometimes it’s best to say the right thing to smooth things over, even when you don’t mean them. For Anne, it’s the choice between being true to oneself and doing what’s expected. This is part of her coming-of-age arc, since we must all learn this social custom, throwing away black and white notions about when it’s okay to lie.
Sophie’s Choice type dilemmas
Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose is weighed down by all these creatures living on his antlers but when shooting season begins he has to choose between saving them and being free of them himself.
Writers should be mindful of the gendered nature of this question. Girls are acculturated differently, to be kind and self-sacrificing. When female characters in children’s books make huge sacrifices we are reinforcing that message. An Australian picture book in which a female character makes a huge sacrifice for the sake of a male character is the Nick Bland book The Very Cranky Bear. The sheep shaves off her fluff to make the bear happy, but the story ends there. We don’t see how uncomfortable she is in the cold cave without her wool to protect her. Perhaps this is connected to the fact that sheep are regularly shorn, and in Australia where there are lots of sheep, we don’t really consider that a burden on the sheep. (If we didn’t shear sheep they’d grow ridiculously woolly, since that’s the way we’ve bred them.) However, it’s worth subverting gendered expectations where possible, in which case it’s necessary for writers to ask:
- Why have I gendered my characters like this and not like this?
- Can this self-sacrificing creature be gendered male?
- If the self-sacrificing creature is gendered female, is she always sacrificing herself for the sake of a male, or can she at least help another female character?
To break the rules or not to break the rules?
Sometimes parents dish out terrible advice. The father in Freaks and Geeks is so hopelessly out of touch with his teenage daughter that any advice he gives her is taken to comical extremes. In other stories, the adult authority figure may dish out quite sensible advice which nevertheless doesn’t work in the real world. Children start to realise this from about the middle of primary school.
As a real life example, my 9-year-old daughter has a friend who was recently held hostage in the girl’s toilet (in a scene that reminds of something straight out of Bridge To Terabithia). This has lead to tears, and the girl blocking the door simply won’t budge. The school rule: Hands off. No touching at all, ever. Advice that actually might work to disrupt the power struggle going on: Barge past anyway, and if she won’t move of her own accord, too bad for her. My daughter’s friend’s real life dilemma is, does she barge past the door-blocker, bending school rules about not touching others in anger, or does she stay in the toilet and cry, cementing the social hierarchy to her detriment?
Stories dealing with the issue of bullying are well-placed to explore these moral dilemmas with nuance that school authorities themselves are unable to provide. In fact, children’s literature is currently going through a period in which adults in general are not to be trusted. This is a feature of the dystopian novel, which is recently making another comeback. Amanda Craig has this to say about this kind of children’s book:
Many are quite brilliantly plotted and written, and I recommend them, especially for reluctant readers of 11+, even if, like vampires and demons they are becoming too familiar. Children enjoy imagining how they might behave in such adventures, and the usual blend of action, romance and moral dilemma does no harm. But there are other kinds of novel being published which do worry me.
— Amanda Craig
In other words, dystopian novels can be useful for the moral dilemmas they present — and in apocalyptic scenarios, these dilemmas will be a matter of life and death.