Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing Moral Dilemmas by Alex Lidell

It is my pleasure to once again welcome Alex Lidell to Faith Without Limits. Alex has been a long time critique partner who is a fantastic writer. Her novel, Service of the Crown, will be published by Dial Books soon! One of the aspects that I love about SOC, is that she peppered the novel with moral dilemmas that really make the reader reflect on the situation. So, I asked her to write a blog post about just that! Without further ado...


My muse savors moral dilemmas – with savage consequences for my characters in Service of the Crown. Nonetheless, when Raregem asked me to write a blog post on the topic, I found that dissecting dilemma creation is trickier than I presumed. A moral dilemma is a conflict between two opposite but ethically comparable choices: should you tell on a friend who broke the law? What if you are a police officer? What if the friend had a good reason? You get the idea.

So far, so good. Things get interesting when you start writing this stuff, because, unlike real life, you get to control not only the dilemma but also the definitions of right and wrong. In fiction, mass murderers (“assassins”), robbers (“rogues”) and juvenile delinquents (“misunderstood teens”) can be beloved protagonists. Lots of strings to play with here.

Let’s get practical. There are two types of dilemmas and you need to know which one you are going for. The two types are

1. Dilemma your character experiences. This deepens characterization and is easier to control.
2. Dilemma your reader experiences. This taps the reader’s emotions directly and is more dangerous.

Character dilemma

Here, the character, Jane, is caught between two choices. The reader will judge Jane’s actions largely by Jane’s own values. Should Jane skip church to go to a party? is only a dilemma if Jane if a faithful churchgoer to begin with. Whether or not the reader goes to church is secondary. At the end of the scene, the reader will get a deeper understanding of Jane, and not necessarily a deeper contemplation his own approach to spirituality.

Yes, yes, yes, I hear your shouts of indignation. Readers identify with characters. I agree. But at the moment we are comparing the two types of dilemmas to each other. A character’s dilemma primary examines the character, any introspection the reader does is a second layer.

Reader dilemma

Here the characters are clear on what they want, but the desires of sympathetic characters conflict each other, leaving the reader to judge right from wrong based on the reader’s own values:

Jane protests greedy Norm’s plan to fire Kate, an elderly employee who’s been with the company over thirty years.


Norm knows that Kate does nothing, and has kept her position thus far through blackmail. Plus, he has to let someone go.


Kate has no other income and will be homeless without a job. Plus, back in her twenties, she worked hard and saved the company.


Kate purposely turned down an offer of free housing to “ensure” Norm can’t fire her. She’s done nothing for the past twenty years because she’s entitled to a break after the sacrifices she made for the company in her youth.

You get the idea. The reader is left torn between Jane’s desire to find an alternative solution, one that would not turn an old woman out on the street and Norm’s plight for fairness and keeping the company afloat. Show that both Jane and Norm are contentious, compassionate and good human beings, and you’ve got the reader torn and involved. The danger is that the reader’s conclusion may not be the one you want him to make.

What do you think? Do you introduce dilemmas into your work? What have you read where dilemmas have been handled well… or not so well? What made them work, or not? Curious minds want to know!

By Alex Lidell
Author of Service of the Crown, upcoming from Dial Books for Young Readers.


  1. Great post, Alex. And thanks for bringing her to us, Ralene. Alex, you have a terrific understanding of character, which is a tremendous strength of Service of the Crown. I can't wait to buy it!!!

  2. excellent post on moral dilemmas! very fascinating. I love getting this perspective.

  3. Great insight into characters Alex and their dilemmas... they are after all linked to the hook in a novel, and in turn engage the reader. I recently read Marked by PC Cast (I know it's not a new book, but I have a long to-read list :P ). Anyway, the dilemma the main character, Zoey, faces is whether to stop Aphrodite from continuing to be mean, or just fit in and date the hunk at school. To me, this is an example of the dilemma not being strong enough to carry through the hook. I mean, she could have chosen to date the guy and fit in, ignoring Aphrodite because ultimately it wasn't a life or death decision - of course at the end we discover she did save someone, but we didn't know that when she made her dilemma choice. Does that make sense... So I'm totally there for clearly making dilemas powerful enough to influence the reader and give the character motiviation for their choices. Wow, that's a long post... sorry.


  4. Good insight on dilemmas Alex. As writers, we have to perfect weaving them into the story at the right moments to hook our reader, make them sympathise and ponder the lesson.


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