When you read a good book, the one recurring thing you find is that, aside from plenty of conflict, the protagonist is always getting into some kind of trouble and yet somehow he or she manages to get out of these close situations.
What you’re reading is the natural escalation of a character’s dilemma. It’s a stable ingredient of any good fiction. In other words, dilemmas, or problems, get worse as the story goes on, up until the action packed or explosive conclusion. As writers, we get to make life pretty bad for our main characters. We do that by setting them up with hard choices. This heightens conflict and tension and keeps the reader turning the page.
We’ve all faced hard choices at some point. If we make one choice, it will create an outcome (which may or may not be desired). If we make the other choice, things could be vastly different. That’s why we’re often damned if we do and damned if we don’t. But that pressure we sometimes feel in real life is also the kind of pressure the characters should feel.
For the very reason we don’t like dilemmas, your characters should experience the confusion and burden that their choices will make. Does the hero save the girl from the clutches of the villain, or does he save the family trapped inside a house that the villain has just set fire to? Whatever the choice, each one has a different outcome.
Almost always, when you make your character faces such decisions, there is a sacrifice, whether that is a personal one, an emotional one, a physical one, an object or a person, a pet or even a principle...whatever it is, it’s something that means a great deal to the protagonist. This produces an undercurrent of conflict and drives the story forward.
Dilemmas come in various guises, but the mains ones you see in fiction tend to be three types – moral dilemmas, personal (or internal) dilemmas and external dilemmas.
Just like in real life, your characters will hold certain views, beliefs and morals. The kind of people they are will dictate the kind of decisions they make throughout their lives. They will have been taught values and morals by parents and teachers and will have formed their own ideas and principles into adulthood. So when they’re faced with a moral dilemma, the more values a person has, the more the moral dilemma will affect them, for example:
A young teen finds out that her father is having an affair. Does she immediately tell her mother what she knows and risk breaking her mother’s heart, knowing that she might also fall out with her father? Or does she remain silent to protect her mother from the truth and pain and keep the bond with her father?
This is a very common moral dilemma, and when personal dilemmas like this occur – who knows what her decision could be, since it might not be so clear cut – it strengthens the connection from story to reader, because the reader can identify with this. It gives the story a whole new perspective.
Unlike moral dilemmas that test a character’s values and the way they view the world, personal dilemmas are just that – very personal to the character. For example, does the protagonist reveal he is gay to his devout Christian parents? Or does he stay silent, gripped by fear and inner turmoil because he won’t be able to come to terms with anything?
What if your character’s wife is in terrible pain, bedridden and trapped in her own body? Does the husband give in to pity and place a cushion over her face to end her torment? Or does he carry on nursing her, prolonging her suffering because he thinks it’s the right thing to do?
These are extremely difficult decisions, which give rise to all manner of conflict and tension; just what the reader loves. They will try to guess what your character will do, what decision he or she might make, and that’s why creating dilemmas is so captivating to them.
External dilemmas come from external influences that characters can’t control, usually thrown at them by nature. While they may not involve a sense of value or morality, they are still centred on conviction, whatever the choice your character makes.
For instance, your character is hiking in the mountains and bad weather closes in. Your character loses his backpack full of equipment and food. Now he faces a dilemma – does he stay put in the cold and await rescue, which might take hours or days, or does he keep moving to stave off the cold and try to reach safety?
As the writer, you will be able to force the character to make a decision. It might be the right decision or the wrong one, and because it’s not clear just what choice the character might make, it keeps the reader guessing.
By forcing your characters into a corner, they are required to make choices which they won’t want to make, but have to, and that means there will be repercussions because of that choice. That reflects real life – when we make a choice, there is always a consequence, good or bad.
The thing to remember with dilemmas is not to create contrivance, for example, if your hero has very strong belief in justice and high moral values, and he catches his wife committing a crime, he is then faced with a moral dilemma. He will naturally think emotionally with his heart by wanting to protect her from the consequences of her actions. But at the same time he knows she has broken the law and his sense of justice is strong enough to know she must be punished. The true dilemma here actually belongs to the writer because when a character is defined and characterised by his beliefs and values throughout a story, he cannot then be expected to switch personality to facilitate a favourable outcome. That’s a contrivance.
Choices that are inconsistent with the character’s values, morals and beliefs simply don’t work. The reader won’t fall for it. Any choices your character makes must be representative of his or her moral values for it to be believable for the reader, without it undermining who they really are. Dilemmas are not easy to get out of, and shouldn’t be. But the behaviours and reactions of your characters must be consistent.
The solution you come up with in order to get your character out of the seemingly impossible must be logical, but not implausible. The reader needs to identify with the problem, understand it and expect the unexpected. Dilemmas start small for your characters and should escalate as the story unfolds. Don’t make their lives easy. They have to confront their problems, their own beliefs and assumptions and they must deal with those choices. They deepen the tension and move the story forward.
To create satisfactory dilemmas, create characters with conviction and a strong sense of moral values, because if they don’t care what happens in the story, then why should the reader?
Next week: Why plot flaws happen.