Why I Love Moral Dilemmas
To me, writing is a bit of a psychological experiment. I love creating morally gray situations and seeing how my characters are going to react to them. What they’ll do, what lines they’ll cross. How far are they really willing to go to get what they want?
In my fantasy adventure trilogy The Healing Wars, I experiment with how far someone might go to save a family member. My heroine, Nya, discovers her little sister Tali has disappeared and she has to find her and get her back. What made this especially interesting to me is that Nya has the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person. To help someone, she has to hurt someone else. So it made sense to push this idea a step further and have Nya choose between hurting others and saving her sister.
To gray up the morals even more, Nya’s shifting ability can also get her into a lot of trouble if she uses it. Her city is currently under enemy occupation, and if the soldiers find out she can shift pain, they’ll capture her and use her as a weapon against her own people. She’s really stuck – risk herself, risk strangers, risk friends, risk family. No matter what she chooses, someone is going to suffer for it.
These moral dilemmas are what I love exploring. For example, in the novel there’s a terrible accident where hundreds of people are injured. Afterward, Nya meets someone who needs her help. His father was injured, is dying, and he needs Nya to heal him and shift his pain. The catch? She has to shift it into this boy and his younger brothers and sister (very young, like 10 and 8). Does she hurt children to save their father? Risk trading their lives for his? And this request comes with the offer of food and a place to sleep for the night. Something Nya desperately needs at that point in the story.
Maybe it’s my dark side coming out, but putting my characters into tough situations just to see what they’ll do makes the writing more interesting. How far can I push Nya before she digs in her heels and says no way? Can I make her do what she swore she’d never do? Can I have her make a horrible choice she deeply regrets, then force her to do it again?
When choices are easy in a story, it’s clear how the characters will decide. Giving my characters impossible choices makes it more unpredictable – both for me and the reader. You never know where a choice might lead, but you’re pretty sure it’ll end badly for someone. And when they do make a hard decision, you cringe right along with them.
It also makes me think about what I’d do in that situation. Would I make the same choice Nya does? The same sacrifice? It’s actually a lot of fun to have a character choose something I wouldn’t do. It’s like I get to explore other options without the consequences. And playing “what if” has always been one of my favorite games.
Exploring the moral gray area is central to all my stories. My miniature studies of human nature, even if I’m the one making up all those humans. Hmmm…do you suppose it’s really a study of me? Maybe my dark side is stronger than I thought.