Which Would You Choose?

PortraitThis post by Craig Snider

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the character must make a decision in a difficult situation, and when you thought about it, you had trouble trying to decide what you would do if you were in their place? For example, in the book and movie, Sophie’s Choice, a mother of two children is in a concentration camp, and the nazi doctor tells her she must choose which of her children will die, and which will continue to live in the camp. Whoa. Who would want to have to make that decision? And, if you did, which would you choose? There are lots of different justifications for every choice, including not choosing at all and risking the possibility of something worse happening to all three of them.

This is called an Ethical Dilemma (or also a thought experiment), defined by Wikipedia as: “An ethical dilemma is a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives , in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.”

For some, there is no problem distinguishing between what they believe to be right or wrong, with no delineation between the polar opposites of good and evil. But, without getting into a philosophical debate, I think we can mostly agree the world is less black and white, and much more many shades of gray.

“Okay, so which one of these do I have to pick so someone doesn’t have to die? Oh yeah, none of them…”

How does this apply to fiction? That’s right, I’m not just ranting about stuff as usual. I find the most interesting fiction is that which causes us to question something about the world, about society, about God, about life, and most importantly about ourselves. One of the ways to do that is to create an ethical dilemma for your character to deal with. If you create one that has no obvious answer between right and wrong, the reader will be forced to ask themselves what they would do in that situation, and even to question your character’s motives for the choice they made.

For example, your hero is forced to choose who to save. Either their friend, or someone who can save the lives of many others. Or, you character must decide if they are willing to sacrifice someone they love to save thousands of lives. Perhaps, the character has two children, as Sophie, and the must choose which one to save. It is important to find those situations where, no matter what the choice turns out to be, the character has suffered some kind of loss.

While no one ever would want to have to make a decision like that, it is the responsibility of the writer to heap just such issues onto the shoulders of the protagonist. They must endure these things so the reader doesn’t have to, or to provide the reader with an opportunity to tackle them from a safe distance. This is the allure of many types of fiction.

“What is he trying to say? That the entire premise for our movie is a convoluted setup created entirely so that I am Batman can be put into a ridiculous situation to see which person I would save, and what that says about me as a person?”
“…Uh, no. No, he’s saying that, uh. Wanna know how I got these scars?”

Do some reading about ethical dilemmas. Find some good examples. But, don’t use them directly in your fiction, as they work only as a theoretical tool with which to isolate certain relative moral thinking. Instead, look at the specific morals they hit on. Find the ones that really stump you, and then expand those into a realistic scenario. To do so, it is necessary to weave the “set up” into the narrative. Like anything else, such a dilemma must arise naturally from the narrative itself. It is not sufficient to have someone merely put the protagonist into the situation to see what they would do, no offense to Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, but that really only works (and really, not very well) in superhero movies.

For your story, make sure it makes sense in the broad scope of the tale. If it does, use it to its full effect. Really make sure both the reader and the protagonist feel it where it hurts. This is nothing new. These types of dilemmas have been used again and again. But, the good ones resist being cliches because there are no clear-cut answers to them, and someone always loses.

For a general example of an ethical dilemma, read here about the Trolley Problem.


23 thoughts on “Which Would You Choose?

  1. This seems to be good advice for fiction writers. Since I don’t write fiction what stuck with me the most about your post is the movie. I have never seen it , but now I don’t think I want to. That is a decision no one should ever have to make.


    1. S.J., I couldn’t agree more. I would never want to make that decision. And that is the wonderful thing about fiction, specifically fiction that explores the darker side of the human experience. Horror writers do it all the time, staring into the abyss, cautiously waiting to see what dark little thing climbs from the inky blackness, and just praying they are strong enough to tackle it rather than being pulled down with it. Better them than us! Thanks for reading!


    1. I agree Abbie. They are problematic, and no one ever wins it seems. Thankfully, life has less of those, and more of the kind that are just difficult, like which kind of coffee to pick, or which book to buy! Well, at least for first-worlders I suppose. In other countries, they probably deal with these things everyday. Scary thought.


  2. In our lives, we do have to occasionally face such decisions — like end of life decisions for ourselves and loved ones. The discussion of “gray” decisions and black and white decisions for novels… I like ones that are lose/lose, except the choice overall will perhaps mean less damage overall. Or ones where you lose a loved one, but maybe save a city. That’s the type of decision someone might have to make in a fantasy genre novel like what I write. You order a military squad full of friends to maintain a rear guard even though they’ll die so that the military force will survive to fight another day, kill the dragon and save the city.


    1. Mike, great point! Military leaders, regardless of how you feel about war, must make these decisions all the time. One can easily disregard their motivations and claim they only care about fighting. But, a good leader must often weigh the loss of the few in order to save many. That is never easy. And, until our world becomes utopian enough to never need to fight another war, there will always be a need to tackle these questions. Thanks Mike!


  3. You hit upon the concept that I have always found to make for compelling reading, both fiction and creative non-fiction. Well said and I thank you. Doris


    1. Doris, thanks for reading! For me as well. I love coming away from any story and wondering, “Is that what I would have done? What would I have done differently? And, how will I think of myself now that I’ve done it?”

      Thanks for reading!


  4. The central tenet of story telling is to create a conflict so that the characters have to make a choice. Your lose-lose situation takes it one step further and makes it even more compelling.


    1. Thank you Kate! Yeah, I think it is a part of the “raising the stakes” aspect of plotting. Your character needs to have a goal, and then the antagonistic force presents obstacles to those goals. And, despite the character still moving forward, they’ve lost something vital. This is most often expressed in fiction as the death of a beloved character and sidekick to the protagonist. In more literary fiction, it would be something less obvious like the character now questioning their own integrity, or morals, and a lack of motivation. Thanks for reading!


  5. This is such a great post, Craig. It gives a lot of pause for thought. Ethical dilemmas might lend themselves more to comic books, but what a great thing for fiction writers to research! I think there definitely may be shades of gray we haven’t even delved into yet. I’m going to give this some more thought and see how I can help it enhance my next story. Thank you!


    1. Leander, yes, the ones I’ve proposed are hyperbolic versions of realistic ethical dilemmas better suited for fantasy. They are concentrated version, designed to address in a broad way, our general moralistic valuations. When you use more realistic dilemmas, such as abortion, people tend to already have their minds made up, or allow their belief systems to decide the situation, which is completely fine. But, those are still dilemmas in their own right. Another one is like the one Mike mentioned about end of life decisions. Regardless of your feelings about situations like that, they represent similar ethical dilemmas, only much more specific. As soon as they become more specific, people will let social, philosophical, and religious morays influence their decisions. The beauty of those more broad thought experiments is that they force the participant to start to question why they have the morals they do, and if they truly understand their own belief systems. That is what fascinates me. Not in the sense that I want to undermine anyone’s beliefs, but instead want them to truly know what they believe.

      Thanks Leander!


  6. Great post, Craig. I totally agree about making sure that any moral or ethical dilemma arises naturally. Those seriously major choices sometimes do have to be made, but thankfully not too often by real people in life. Fiction is a great leveller, though, and can provide the best situations for those cliff hanger moments.


  7. Instantly I thought of Superman and Lois. Save the world or save Lois. Wow. This is some deep thoughts. I enjoyed the scenario between the children. How horrible that would be. Thanks Craig. Cher’ley


  8. Thought-provoking post, Craig! I am writing my first romance with ethical implications (puppy mills) and I’d come to a stand-still (getting “too deep” instead of just fun — but maybe it’s supposed to??!) I appreciate your post and will keep your words in mind as I begin to write the words for my book once again — very helpful! Thanks!!


  9. Great post, Craig. These ethical dilemmas not only raise the stakes for the characters, but, as you noted, cause readers to question themselves and their own motivations–often bringing in a new viewpoint or adding another of those many shades of gray.


    1. Stamm, I couldn’t agree more. That is the type of literature I love. I want to be challenged as a reader. Lord of the Flies was the first book that really made me both question who I was as a person, and to put myself in the place of the characters to see what I would do in their situation. Thanks for reading!


  10. This is a very thought-provoking post. I am sorry it took me so long to read it–too much going on in life to always keep up as I wish. But ethical dilemmas definitely raise the stakes, only I’m not sure I could present one that is lose-lose for my characters. But your blog will help me more carefully plot these out.


    1. Hey Neva. No worries. Sorry it took me so long to respond!

      Well, the best ethical dilemmas are lose-lose, even if it is something as small (or big depending on your point of view) as making the character question their motivations or viewpoint. As I said in the blog, these can be really obvious when you use big scenarios as in sci-fi or fantasy stories. But, they can be just as effective on a smaller scale. Probably the most common would be a scenario like:

      -A friend tells you they are having an affair, but you find out the person they are having an affair with is your other friends spouse.


      -You are accidentally receive a communication that indicates a friend of yours will be fired. You find out that they haven’t been performing up to standards. But, if you give them credit for a project you’ve been working on, they will likely keep their job.

      So, it doesn’t have to be life or death to be considered an ethical dilemma. It is merely a situation that has no clearly definable solution, or at least for most people.

      Hope that helps!


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