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.
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.
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.