The February 2014 Writer’s Digest arrived at my house last week, and I found a helpful article I’d like to share with ya’ll. I can’t share all of it (that would be unethical), so check it out from your local library or subscribe online if you need the entire thing. It’s called Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Steven James. The blurb beneath the headline reads, “Readers can’t resist turning pages when characters are facing tough choices. Use these 5 keys to weave moral dilemmas into your stories–and watch your fiction climb to new heights.” I’d like to share his first key/point with you today and offer a bit of discussion. The first key is: Give your character dueling desires.
Here’s a quote: “Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: the assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.” A sallow character isn’t any fun to read. Nor is one who has no backbone, no convictions, no beliefs worth fighting (or dying) for. So your first step is to give your character a set of beliefs. Then take it an extra step to make it more interesting: “Give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.”
He uses the example of a woman who wants peace in her home and openness between her and her husband. If she suspects her husband is cheating on her, she must sacrifice one of those principles: she either confronts him in openness and destroys the peace, or she keeps the peace by keeping it to herself and ruins the openness between them. Another example James offered is the protagonist who believes cultures should be allowed to define their own subjective moralities, and that women should be treated as equals with men. Now plunk her down in a society that doesn’t give women respect or equality. What will she do? Allow that culture to continue in its morality that women are inferior, or try to change those standards so that women are treated more equally?
(photo of Frodo courtesy of wikipedia)
My family just watched the first Hobbit movie, went to the theater for the second Hobbit movie, then watched all three Lord of the Rings movies (took a couple days to do all that). Aside from the awesome cinematography and musical score, those movies featured amazing character and story. Frodo Baggins clearly had conflicting moral convictions. He truly believed that good should stand up to evil. He also truly believed that Hobbits should live quiet, peaceful lives in their Shire homeland. When an adventure is thrust upon him, he must choose: stand and fight, or stay home and hope someone else would stand up and fight. He faced similar challenges throughout his adventure. 1) Use the ring to bring about something good, or defeat the urge to wear the ring so his soul didn’t become further corrupted. 2) Trust others to help him, or face his challenge alone. 3) Toss the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom and destroy it (thus destroying evil and its minions), or try to use the ring to defeat evil and its minions. What made Frodo such a compelling character was that we thought we knew what he would do when faced with these choices, but we weren’t absolutely certain. He kept us guessing until the very end. In many places, it looked like even HE didn’t know what he wanted to do.
Compelling characters ensure the reader will turn pages instead of reaching for the TV remote. Give your character the extra dilemma of conflicting morals and you’ll enthrall your readers.
I offered Lord of the Rings as an example. Can you think of others? Share your ideas in the comments below, please.