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
Using Donald’s distinction, not many children’s books of MG level and below have moral dilemmas. The vast majority feature dilemmas, relatable because they are faced by all of us over the course of growing up: Do I sit with my old friends at lunch or with these shiny new friends? Do I follow my parents’ instructions or do I try something different? A story like Wolf Hollow has a moral dilemma, to do with telling the truth or not in order to protect someone. Interestingly, Wolf Hollow was originally written for adults, and revised for children when an editor saw a position for it on the children’s book market.
The choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is no choice at all
Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose the “good” or the “right” as we perceive the “good” or the “right.” It is impossible to do otherwise. Therefore, if a character must choose between a clear good versus a clear evil, or right versus wrong, the audience, understanding the character’s point of view, will know in advance how the character will choose.
A thief bludgeons a victim on the street for the five dollars in her purse. He may know this isn’t the moral thing to do, but moral/immoral, right/wrong, legal/illegal often have little to do with one another. He may instantly regret what he’s done. But at the moment of murder, from the thief’s point of view, his arm won’t move until he’s convinced himself that this is the right choice. If we do not understand that much about human nature–that a human being is only capable of acting toward the right or the good as he has come to believe it or rationalize it–then we understand very little. Good/evil, right/wrong choices are dramatically obvious and trivial.
True choice is dilemma. It occurs in two situations. First a choice between irreconcilable goods: From the character’s point of view two things are desirable, he wants both, but circumstances are forcing him to choose only one. Second, a choice between the lesser of two evils: From the character’s view two things are undesirable, he wants neither, but circumstances are forcing him to choose one. How a character chooses in a true dilemma is a powerful expression of his humanity and of the world in which he lives.
– Robert McKee, Story
Everyday Dilemma, Or Impossible Choice?
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). If we think in terms of ‘impossible choice’, then choosing to sit with new friends instead of old friends then sounds impossible: If you sit with your old friends you could squander a chance to make extra friends. But if you sit with your new friends you might lose your old ones, since childhood is tribal. If you follow the rules about being nice to everyone, how do you deal with that covert bully who is never nice to you? Ignoring won’t work. Childhood is chock full of impossible choices.
Moral Dilemmas Give Stories Emotional Impact
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
To take the schoolyard bully example, it is morally right to ignore a bully. That’s what kids are told to do. But in reality, ignoring bullies doesn’t work. It may feel personally right to quietly take revenge, or at the very least, to assert your own position in the pecking order by doing something that displays your own strength.
Moral Dilemmas Create Mystery
Mystery in story is always good. Not just in the mystery genres, but in every single story.
Karl Iglesias recommends the following 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?
Other people use different words to describe this kind of mystery: John Truby uses ‘ghost‘ to describe ‘mysterious past’. The word ‘hook’ or ‘dramatic question’ is often used to describe mystery in the present and future.
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.
In this Japanese psychological horror a mother must decide between staying with her own daughter (in which case they may both be killed), or sacrificing herself to mother the little girl ghost, thereby leaving her own daughter without a mother.
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.
Personal Versus Moral Decisions
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. This is the classic moral choice versus personal choice, as distinguished by Karl Iglesias, quoted above.
To break the rules or not to break the rules?
This is also a really popular moral dilemma in children’s books, because sometimes parents dish out terrible advice. It might be because they don’t want their child to get into trouble by prioritising the personal over the moral. Often as not, it’s because the parents are too old to understand (or remember) the social intricacies that are specific to the school years.
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 his dialogue. 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.
Avoiding Overt Didacticism
This advice applies especially to children’s writers, perhaps. We’re going through a period where didacticism in children’s books is a big no-no. I push back on that a little below but first, an important distinction:
Narrative closure is not necessarily the same as thematic or ideational closure.
We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure’.
We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure’. (Hermeneutic basically = interpretive.)
Writers generally tidy up the narrative (but not always — Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one famous example).
But even if you tidy up all your plot threads to create a satisfying conclusion, that doesn’t mean you should tidy up ideas. They don’t mean you, as writer, should come down on one side or the other of your the moral dilemma:
Your theme should take the form of an irresolvable dilemma, so you should give both sides equal weight for as long as possible until the climax. The trick is to come up with a finale that addresses the conflict and makes a concrete statement about it, without definitively declaring one side right and the other wrong. … [In your ironic and ambiguous ending] a statement is made about the dilemma, but its’ not permanently settled. You have something to say, but you don’t have something definitive to say. You have a point, but your point is untidy. You’re leaving room open for uncertainty and ambiguity, because that multiplies the meaning.
— Matt Bird, Secrets of Story
This relates closely to a post I’ve already written about punishment in children’s literature. Children’s books very often come down on one side by punishing the characters who did wrong. A lot of genre fiction for adults is just the same — in crime novels especially, the rule of the genre is that the murderer gets caught (though it’s possible to blend crime with other genres and create something different).
While contemporary children’s books are said to be far less didactic than books from The First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, you’ll find they still contain messages — the messages simply seem more subtle. It all comes down to who gets punished.
There is still very much a taboo against rewarding behaviours considered bad by a popular, conservative audience.
The Gendered Nature Of Moral Decisions
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?
A CHARACTER IS MORE LIKELY TO MAKE A BAD CHOICE IF FATIGUED
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts.
– Do you suffer from decision fatigue? from the New York Times.