Putting characters in moral danger

I was talking with Mary Anne last week about my story-or-novel-in-progress, and I mentioned that it's feeling somehow thin to me: slight, insubstantial, lacking in heft or substance. I've tried to raise the stakes, but something seemed to be still missing.

Mary Anne brought up an idea that Alex Gurevich had mentioned earlier in the weekend; I later checked with Alex, and he said it would be fine to post about it.

What he had said was that readers (especially of epic fantasy, I think) are often not so worried about the characters being in physical danger, because in most books the reader knows that the protagonists will survive to the end. But readers are often more worried, and more in suspense, about the characters being in moral danger; that is, about the characters being tempted to do things they know are wrong.

Alex provided a specific example, but it's from a book I haven't read yet (but plan to), and I gather it's a major plot element, so I'm avoiding reading the bit of his email where he mentioned the details of his example. Mary Anne mentioned Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a prominent example; characters falling to temptation can be major plot drivers.

I found all of that fascinating. I've heard other related ideas before, but I don't think I've seen it discussed in terms of moral danger before; a useful and interesting paradigm for me as both a reader and a writer.

There are plenty of exceptions to the idea that the protagonists will survive to the end, of course, and (this is a heavy paraphrase of something Will S suggested to my Clarion class long ago) maiming characters instead of killing them can be a useful technique for increasing the suspense about physical danger. So putting characters in moral danger isn't the only way to heighten suspense.

But I think it's a particularly good way to do so, if it's handled plausibly.

It's easy to do badly. For example, I often see stories in which a character is given a moral choice but there's never any doubt about which way they'll choose, either because one option is obviously pure evil or because one option just wouldn't be tempting to that particular character. (Will the law-abiding mild-mannered character who's been cut off in traffic decide to pull out a gun and start shooting, or will they just honk their horn? WHICH. WILL. THEY. CHOOSE???) And the moral choices themselves have to be substantial ones to make a difference; a character's decision about whether to kick a puppy or walk around it is not one that's likely to keep me in suspense. And the moral choices have to feel like an organic part of the story, not arbitrarily grafted on. And some moral choices are so cliched that they no longer provide much suspense. (Will the superhero save their SO or their best friend?) And so on.

But when it's done well, I think this can become central to a story.

Was thinking about all this on the plane from Chicago to Philadelphia last week as I took out my computer to read magazine submissions, and I started having ideas for how the moral-danger thing could play out in my characters. (And some related stuff about conflict, both internal and external, and about putting pressure on characters in areas that are most important to them, like bending a piece of wood at its weak point.) I fired up Scrivener and wrote about 800 words of notes about it. I don't think this solves all of the story's problems, but I think it helps a lot, adding texture and depth to the characters, and suspense and interest for readers, and possibly having substantial and lasting effects on the plot and on the characters.

It's the first time in maybe a year or so that I've worked on my own fiction without having scheduled Writing Time in advance. Felt good.

So thanks, Alex and Mary Anne! Useful general paradigm, and particularly useful to me at this particular moment.

6 Responses to “Putting characters in moral danger”

  1. Catherine O

    cool! fwiw, this is totally true for me–I feel sick when Edmund is cramming down the turkish delight, whereas when he’s just in danger of being killed or statuefied, that’s much less scary.

  2. jacob

    I agree completely; one good example is Lord of the Rings. Sure, there’s plenty of physical peril, but the biggest peril is: will Frodo put on the Ring and claim it as his own? Will the Good Guys decide that the ring is too powerful/useful to destroy? And which side of Gollum will control him?

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    That reminds me of Saruman — mostly, he’s the guy you love to hate, but there’s that moment early on, when Gandalf realizes that his friend has fallen to the dark, and he’s just heart-broken. We’re set up early on to know that the moral risk is serious and real.

    And one of the most triumphant moments in the books is when Boromir, who has fallen to temptation, turns back and redeems himself (at great price, of course). I love him for that — in some ways, much more than Aragorn, who isn’t ever really tempted.

  4. Jed Bell

    Plus moral danger is generally so much more a thing we might ourselves experience–it’s a rare week when I’m threatened with death, turned to stone or the like. Edmund and the Turkish Delight fill me with guilt and shame because I can immediately put myself in his position and imagine–or, in effect, _remember_–the tragic consequences.

  5. Vardibidian

    As your friendly neighborhood narrative fiend, however, let me warn that raising the moral stakes, like raising the mortal stakes, is best done in the furtherance of plot. As with Edmund, and Frodo and Boromir, the story goes to their choice of actions, which are interesting in part because of their high moral stakes. I have read a good deal of recent fantasy fiction where the character is simply presented with a moral issue, agonizes about it for a half a page of internal monologue, and then goes on, with the next bit of the story seemingly independent of the intervening character development. This may be what you mean by central to the story; it’s certainly what I mean by it.

    Of course, some of that stuff I disliked has been highly regarded by non-me readers, so perhaps the first step is to decide how much to pander to my tastes. My advice: plenty!

    On another related point, raising the moral stakes can involve raising the social stakes: in the Miles books, f’r’ex, there tends to be a focus on the connection between them. The character making the moral choice may stand to lose a friend or a job or an ally, etc, etc. Another example is the Temeraire series, which have largely given up making the audience fear for its heroes’ lives, but has happily demolished their careers and romances and so on (while continuing to hold mortal danger as a largely notional spice).


  6. S. Samuel

    I think “moral danger” is something that a writer can use so their future readers can better relate to the central character who is put in some “moral danger.” How often can a reader relate about being in “physical danger” incident in his/her life? Not too often.

    [Note from Jed: the URL made clear that this was comment spam, but since it’s on-topic and apparently written by a human, I’m allowing it even though it makes the same point Jed B made, only less well.]


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