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.