Navigating a dilemma

When a character has conflicting goals, we call it a dilemma.

Here's a snippet in which the narrator has two goals: to be loyal and to be honest. What happens when they can't do both at the same time?

We didn't agree to stay quiet, but you just knew that the other guys wouldn't say it was you, and you wouldn't say it was them. For me it was about being loyal, but also about being honest. I don't think I was being dishonest to the principal by not telling him who was there. I really didn't want to get my friends into trouble. But at the same time, I wanted the friend who caused the hole to put his hand up and take responsibility. I thought by being quiet I was giving him the opportunity to stand up, because I'd learnt that when you do something wrong it's good to take responsibility for your actions.

Notice how the dilemma hinges on the variations of the phrase 'but also': I want this, but I also want that.

Here are some examples of characters wrestling with a dilemma:

I was looking at the bus lady wondering if I should completely lose it. I wanted to be respectful—she was just doing her job—but I also knew that I had to get on this bus if I was going to save this bird. Couldn't she bend the rules for some wildlife? I wanted her to realize it wasn't going to hurt anyone, it was obviously sick—it was lying in my arms like a sack of beans. But at the same time she was so insistent that I wanted to bust in there and take a seat and dare her to kick me out.

Chief was furious. "Those rappel ropes should have been clean!" His face was red as beet. I don't think anybody had ever seen him lose his temper like this. Smurf was staring ahead, chewing his bottom lip and waiting in out. It was as awkward as I've ever felt. We all knew it was him. Any one of us could have said, "Smurf nearly got us killed," and we'd have been in our rights, plain as day. But the crew was all about personal responsibility—Smurf screwed up, it was his responsibility to say so. And so we all waited for Smurf because we couldn't believe he wouldn't do the right thing.

  • Imagine a situation in which your character wants conflicting goals.
  • Focus on creating a moment where they (or you) say, "I want to do this but also want/don't want to do that."
  • Include enough detail around that moment so we understand what's going on and why.
Describe a moment in which a character struggles with a dilemma.

You might have noticed these dilemmas have a surface behaviour—speak up vs stay silent, get on the bus vs stay off—but these behaviours reflect deeper conflicts in values—e.g. loyalty vs honesty, human rules vs animal life.

The most compelling dilemmas emerge from these underlying value conflicts. For example:

  • Honesty vs loyalty
  • Courage vs safety
  • Progress vs tradition
  • Freedom vs responsibility
  • Love vs duty
  • Self vs group

The reason why these conflicts are compelling is because there are no easy answers—both values are good! The problem is that you can't always have both at the same time.

As readers, we want to see characters make tough choices and then find out what happens as a result.

After all this conflict, is there any room for harmony in stories?