How to Create a Complex Moral Argument for Your Theme

How to Create a Complex Moral Argument for Your Theme

Create a Complex Moral Argument for Your ThemeOn their surface, stories are nothing more than entertainment. They’re fun little ditties about cool people doing interesting things. But that’s not all stories are. Even the simplest of stories are saying something–they’re positing a moral argument about the world we live in.

Cool, right? Even when we don’t intend to share a “message” with readers, we are. The outcome of the story–the choices the protagonist makes–the way he is rewarded for some choices and punished for others–all of these things are presenting a moral world view, however subtly, for the readers’ consideration.

But it gets even cooler. Because if you can take conscious control of these elements, you can raise even the most entertainment-driven story to far greater heights of purpose, resonance, and meaning.

How Not to Create a Complex Moral Argument

Be ye warned, however. This is not a road for the faint-hearted or the flippant. Execute your story’s moral argument with something less than finesse and you might end up distancing readers by making them feel preached at (and this is so whether they agree with your “message” or not).

So what’s the secret to finessing a complex moral argument?

The key is the word “complex.” If your thematic premise comes across as too simplistic or one-sided, readers will inevitably feel like you’ve rigged the jury. You’re not presenting them all the facts, which means you’re not trusting them to make up their own minds, which means you’re representing yourself as smarter than they are, which means they’re not going to like you (or your story) very much.

Avoid “On-the-Nose” Thematic Premises

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

In short, you have to create a moral argument that’s two-sided. Undoubtedly, one side is right (or “more” right) than the other in your eyes, but you don’t want to weight the scales too heavily. You want to raise questions about both sides of the thematic premise.

Remember: it’s not the author’s job to make up the readers’ mind. Rather, it’s your job to present all the facts, so they can make up their own minds.

If you’re going to do that, you first have to make sure you’ve created an antagonistic force to represent the “other” side in a way that actually leaves room for an argument. You’ll never gain a complex moral argument if the “bad” side is so bad, no one in his right mind would ever argue for it.

For example, the great script doctor John Truby (author of the must-read Anatomy of Story), keenly pointed out in his analysis of last year’s Oscar-nominated Trumbo (about a blacklisted screenwriter in the ’50s):

[It has an] on the nose script that preaches to the choir. It would seem impossible to come up with a complex moral argument in this story because it’s so hard to justify the other side.

Bryan Cranston Trumbo Typewriter

Trumbo (2015), Bleecker Street.

Choose Your Thematic Arguments Carefully

As Truby indicates, some moral arguments are simply too black and white to allow for a complex exploration. If you feel this is the case with the argument at the heart of your story’s main conflict, then you have two options.

Option #1: Find a New Conflict

It’s possible the simplistic nature of your main conflict is due to overblown, two-dimensional characters–particularly your protagonist and antagonist, who will be representing the two sides of your moral argument.

If your good guy dresses in white, never does wrong, and never doubts his path–and if your bad guy dresses in black, tortures all his subordinates, and laughs maniacally amidst inopportune monologues–then I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess there is a lot more depth you could be exploring here. Deepen your characters and you’ll also deepen your conflict and your theme.

Option #2: Look to a Different Aspect of the Story for the Moral Argument

If the main conflict is just too straightforward to lend itself to a complex moral argument, then make sure you’re mining other aspects of your protagonist’s journey. If he has no reason to explore doubts inspired by the main conflict, then what can he be conflicted about?

How about:

Once you’ve identified the moral argument at the heart of your character’s arc, do your best to explore it honestly. Challenge and refine your own beliefs–and you’ll create a complex thematic premise that will keep readers thinking about your story long after its entertainment value has faded.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is the key to creating a complex moral argument in your story’s theme? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Kate Flournoy says

    I learned this the hard way. 😛 Thank you so much for the article— it helps to see it all laid out point by point like that.
    The number one trick that helps me with this is just remembering to see my villains as complex human beings who find themselves ‘heroing’ the wrong cause.
    Another way to deepen the complexity of the theme is to have the ‘bad’ guys be so much more confident and assured in their beliefs than the good guys. In my WIP, the villains not only believe whole-heartedly in their cause, they are very adept at expressing it fluently and convincing others that it’s right. For most of the book, they clearly have the upper hand, which is frustrating to the MC and hopefully the reader. And frustrating (done well) is thought provoking.
    Also (yup, I’m just dumping a bunch of random thoughts on the page 😉 ) if your bad guys are better/stronger/more morally justified in at least one thing than your good guys, it poses even more questions because it gives the villain leverage over the struggling protagonist, and forces you to evaluate the pieces of the villain’s worldview that are wrong, and ASK YOURSELF WHY THEY ARE WRONG. Which is always good for the theme. 🙂

    Anyway… thanks again for the article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent points! The idea of “the villain being the hero of his own story” is one I return to time and again in constructing my own antagonists. For me, what this usually comes down to is making sure I completely understand the antagonist’s *justification* for his beliefs and actions.

    • Thank you for dumping all this out there! I just added a huge paragraph of revision notes to my planner regarding two characters who need to believe The Lie firmly… and how to go about it. 🙂

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        You go! 🙂

      • Kate Flournoy says

        Awesome Rochelle! Go for it! 😀

        Mrs. Weiland, (what name do you go by, by the way? It seems a little odd to call you Mrs. Weiland 😛 ) I noticed how good it can be for the villain to be better than the hero in some ways by studying a villain I read recently…

        … his name was Faolan Mactalde.

        You know the one? 😉
        Anyway, his last scene really made me sit up and take notice because I realized that all along, he had possessed something Chris didn’t have: a will to grasp life with both hands, take chances, appreciate every single moment given him, and plow forward in the way he had chosen regardless of the consequences. And he was stronger for it.
        You played that villain off his hero very well. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Aw, why thank you. 🙂 That makes me smile. Mactalde was a particularly fun “villain” to write. All he wants to do is go home–which, really, you can’t blame him for me.

          You don’t have to call me Mrs. Weiland–especially since I’m not a Mrs. 😉 My first name is Katie.

          • Kate Flournoy says

            Okay Katie. 😉
            Just curious… how much conscious development did you have to do with Mactalde, and how much did he write himself? Because I was really impressed with how human (notice I said human, not humane 😛 ) he was in some respects. Was every single thing about him deliberately thought out, or did you wing some of it?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Honestly, he was a really, really hard antagonist to write. :p He went through about three iterations before he ended up as he in the book. Makes me happy that he worked for you!

          • Kate Flournoy says

            Wow, I can’t even imagine having to change a character that many times. Good on you for sticking with it. He’s perfect for his story. 🙂

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Thanks! I appreciate it. Going to be weird going into the sequel without him.

          • Kate Flournoy says

            I can’t wait! *hyperventilates excitedly* Is it more or less with the same characters? Or is that classified information? 😉

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Here’s what we know so far 😉 :

            I plan to start outlining next month.

          • Kate Flournoy says

            I shouldn’t have followed the link. Now I’m dying of curiosity. Thanks a lot. 😛

            *rubs hands in delicious anticipation* But then again, they do say anticipation is half the charm, don’t they? 😉

          • All I’m saying is if he goes back to Leal, it can’t shortchange the bittersweetness and Brooke and Mike totally need to cross over. That and you’re putting me into a nervous wreck about how the sequel will turn out because I loved the first one so much it just seems impossible to match it. Ok, I don’t have nervous fits, but I’m having a pretty serious one in my imagination. God bless. You’re gonna need it. If this one turns out like Dreamlander, I’ll do a flip and cry and eat 50lb of chocolate and generally act hysterical and tell everyone in the world about it.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            @Kate: Evil plan is working. 😉

            @Daeus: Oh, now you’ve really put the pressure on! :p

          • Joe Long says

            I was a little disappointed to read recently on your other blog that you never really cared for the name. It’s one I’ve always liked, and long before I ran into you that’s the name I gave to my temptress.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Eh, well, it’s not that I don’t like the name. But when you show up in a room of similiarly aged peers and half of them have the same name, well… :p

  2. Good message (pun unintended).

    The good stories leave you resonating with something thought provoking; causing us to reflect on life in a deeper way.

    Understanding theme will give us a deeper understanding of story. Learning how to implement theme will give us much needed skills in the craft and will take our writing to the next level.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Theme is the magic ingredient. It’s what takes good stories and turns them into great stories. It’s always worth that comparatively small amount of extra effort to pursue it meaningfully.

    • Joe Long says

      My MC is pretty much me at age 19, getting a late start on romance. I took a ‘Law & Order’ approach, of ripping a premise from real life, and then asking, “What could possibly go wrong?”

      I’ve borrowed many anecdotes from the whole of my life, and I also find myself expressing much of my current attitudes on life through the characters who interact with the MC. It’s like sending a letter to my past self.

      My viewpoints are there, but others are presented. In a couple scenes my MC’s best friend at college meets the love interest, and afterwards the friend’s comments can be summarized as, “Are you going to marry this girl? Because if you have no intention and are in it just for the fun, then it’s all about you – and is that fair to her?” The MC gets to counter argue and then mull over that advice for the rest of the story. (Now have to work it up to somewhere around 1000 words)

  3. Yees. You really hit it there. I generally think of this issue in terms of how the point is tied to the theme, but you’re right that it also has to do with How Much Conflict there is around the theme. An easy win is frustrating. We all want to see a fair fight. It’s frustrating when I have to go, “Love the point you’re making there. It is soo true, but I’m absolutely squirming right now. Stop it!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! I love stories that make me squirm, that make me think outside my comfortable little box, that challenge me to be honest with myself. That’s what I want to create in my own fiction.

      • Well, that too. A slap in the face can be nice on occasions, but I meant the embarrassed type of squirming like “Oh, you really are making a good point look so cheesy. Don’t do that.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Ah, yes, I gotcha now. I misread your comment. Yeah, we don’t wanna do that. :p

  4. Oh cool, this post is especially apt for a trunk story I’m revisiting. I went with option 2 myself, but your post made me flash back to high school, when an English teacher pointed out to us that persuasive essays require a thesis that has an opposing side. So, there’s no point in anti-pushing-old-ladies-down-the-stairs essays. No conflict there.

    No conflict, no story. I think you’ve hit on why I’m against elevating theme above story and character. Or I thought I was, but now I realize I’m specifically against “on the nose” themes. I think Mark Twain called those Western Union stories. Those writers make the characters carry the idiot ball just to prove a point. The characters themselves are just props, not real or convincing. These are stories where Mary Sues and Marty Stus abound.

    The more I think about it, I think this ties in with your previous post about the characters who never get their hands dirty, never make an irrevocable decision. If your character doesn’t have a flaw that could lead them astray, then it doesn’t mean much if he always does the right thing, now does it?

    Bringing it back to my English teacher, if the character sees an old lady on the stairs and doesn’t think to push her then a theme can’t be about “don’t push old ladies down the stairs.”

    But if the character thinks the old lady is the witch who will eat her brother Hansel, she may have to choose between pushing her down the stairs or calling the police. Bonus if Gretel’s a pacifist who thinks violence is always wrong. Yet if she doesn’t push the old lady, Hansel may get eaten if the police don’t arrive in time. She’ll have wronged her brother.

    But if she pushes the old lady, Gretel will have violated her own principles. Perhaps she vowed to God never to harm another person. And if the old lady turns out to be an innocent guest at the witch’s “Enchanted Tupperware” party, Gretel will have compounded her guilt. This is usually where I try and have Gretel find a third option 🙂

    I typically can’t identify my themes until I’m deep into a story, but now I finally have a framework for identifying them sooner: a true, complex theme will always be tied to the character’s struggle, and will come with a price tag. This may save me revision time in the future!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes we see people wanting to add to the “plot vs. character” meme by making it “plot vs. character vs. theme.” One of them *has* to be the most important, right? And, honestly, if there’s an argument for any one of them being more important than the other, it’s theme. But the truth of the matter is that all three are part of an integral whole. Plot and character create theme–and are, in turn guided by the theme. This happens whether the author is consciously aware of it or not, but, of course, it works so much more fluidly and powerfully when we can take conscious control and responsibility for the mechanics.

  5. Really eye opening and educative. I learned a lot. Thanks, ☺☺☺

  6. Matthew Weigelt says

    How these principles change, even slightly, as the readers get younger?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As Joseph said in a comment below, there’s usually less room for subtlety in addressing young audiences. That said, there’s still every bit as much room for realistically portraying both sides of a issue, particularly those that aren’t dark.

  7. It depends on the intended audience as well. Stories for younger children are cut and dried as to who is good and who is bad. It’s also the same in Disney movies. Older audiences can process more complex morality. In my book, Operation Mermaid, the Project Kraken Incident, one of my main characters is a Homeland Security agent. He’s not all good. I also have a twist in the ending (I won’t give it here because of spoilers) where one of the heroes acts like a villain. I didn’t want the total happily ever after ending. I just know when Hollywood gets ahold of books for movies, a lot of the moral complexity is taken out, and it becomes the classic good v evil story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True. It’s always important to keep the audience in mind, although we also want to be careful we’re never falling into the trap of talking down to a younger audience.

  8. Samantha says

    I definitely prefer themes that are more subtle and give different aspects/viewpoints. Then there’s no need to spell things out to get a message across. It’s less preaching and more of a exploration.

    Great food for thought, here, on how to make that possible with my own work. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly! When the story shares the theme via the plot, there’s no need for authors to point to it: “See! See! Did you see that symbolism there?” :p

  9. The series I’m currently writing and publishing deals with slavery in humanity’s far distant future. An entire species has been enslaved for so long that they no longer believe they were ever free.

    I purposely chose NOT to focus on the slavery aspect. As a lifelong Southern Belle and history buff, I’ve always known the issue of slavery is not as black and white as it appears. It’s a complex issue with no easy answers. The way it was ended in America, and the aftermath of Reconstruction, is the heart of much of the racial conflict in the US.

    The focus of my series, then, is what does freedom look like, and how can one be free while still being a slave. Identity is also a strong theme. The most consistent thread in my reviews is how every book in the series makes the reader think. Which is totally what I’m going for!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “What does freedom look like, and how can one be free while still being a slave”–I love this! Personally, I think this is the key to just about everything in life: finding the freedom and empowerment within yourself, totally regardless of your physical circumstances.

    • I think you’re wasting good ammo. There’s no need to give any answer to this particular issue; just show both facades of it. Hopefully your reader will judge the profit from slavery not worth the dehumanisation (dealienisation) of thousands .

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        One of my favorite quotes (by an author whose name I have sadly forgotten) is that it’s not the author’s job to offer answers, only to ask questions.

  10. I noticed that Once Upon A Time discusses this a lot as many of the (former) villains ask the question “Can Villains Get a Happy Ending?” Also I think of my high school days when we read parts of “Paradise Lost” and discovered that Satan was “tragic hero” or at least I think that how my English teacher referred to him. Good stuff.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I gotta admit I quit watching Once Upon a Time after the second season because their treatment of Regina drove me nuts. They wanted to redeem her, and yet (at that point anyway) she wasn’t changing her core ways in the least.

      • Regina has come a LONG way, especially over the last two seasons when she found love. She lost it again, and the two sides of her nature will play a massive role in the next season.

        I was getting kinda tired of the Disney movie tie-ins, and I’m so glad to see them digging into classic literature for the next season.

  11. Thank you for this article. It is a very timely one for me. I am approaching the end of my first novel, which is a western, and I am getting ready to take a second look at it. I don’t want a protagonist that is so morally upright that the reader can’t relate to him (I have read many, many books in my genre that are like that). Nor do I want an antagonist that has no redeeming qualities. Your article will be a big help to me in reaching the optimum balance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s really all about balance: presenting two opposing characters who are both flawed individuals striving for something.

  12. I avoid spoilers so I don’t know all of them, but it’s starting off with Mr. Hyde as a bad guy. They introduced a new realm, riffing off second half of season 4 when they introduced new realms via The Author and the sorcerer’s apprentice, the Land of Unfinished Stories.

    They’ve done some classic literature in the past, but not a lot. There’s so much to mine, though, and I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic ride.

    I’m very glad to see Regina the evil queen back for season 6, though. I’ve missed her! She’s such a rich villain.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, she was a great villain–which was part of the reason I was irritated by their half-hearted approach to redeeming her, at that point in the series.

      • Her journey’s been slow, and incredibly hard, but she’s making progress. A great villain like that can’t be good at the drop of a hat. She still fights it every time she has to make a decision. Her decision in the season 5 finale was the wrong one, and now Storybrooke is in grave danger.

  13. Joe Long says

    Going into my WIP I was well aware that the stuff I enjoyed the most were the ones which didn’t provide the answers, but instead only raised the questions. After watching “Captain America: Civil War” I asked my elementary school age grandchildren to explain which side they were on, Iron Man or Captain America, and why. (Although Phil Colson was very opinionated the next week on “Agents of SHIELD”)

    I deal with teenage relationships, and one of the issues is age. Older teens with younger teens, college age with high school age. Is it true that, “You can’t help who you fall in love with?” Should 18 be a bright line? Is someone in high school always young and naive while someone in college always experienced and possibly predatory?

    With (and without) relationships come intimate relations, and everything has consequences. One girl has an abortion while another doesn’t. They have different situations, but try convincing them of that. Or the fathers that abortion should ever be an option.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, now you’re making me want to go watch SHIELD. :p What’d Coulson have to say?

      • Joe Long says

        Let’s just say Phil told General Talbot what he could do with the Zakovia accords, right up front in ep20. “You want me to tell the president he should leave the future of the world in the hands of…”

        That reminds me I wanted to mention how they were adding depth to Hive, even as they tell Talbot, “He’s not really the Devil.” He expresses a concern, that he only wants to save these people from a future of self destruction (as his slaves). I’d say he could only look back and see that everywhere he’s tried he’s left smoking desolation. Now I can relate that to a lot in politics today.

        Those final three episodes of the season, post CA:CW used a lot of metaphors. At the end, as Hive pours out his heart to one of the SHIELD team, he asks, “Why are you willing to sacrifice yourself for them?” as a crucifix floats by in the weightlessness of space.

  14. O man! Katie,
    You are really sent to me by the Master of our beings. I have been procrastinating with A Mother In A Dysfunctional Family. Suddenly! I found you in my screen. I don’t even know how you came into my screen? I read. I downloaded both, Story Structure & the Workbook and? Reading your dedication? I was hooked on you.

    More so. I came to your site and I read your About. Still in wonder about you? I wrote to you. (Wanted to see if you were for real.) Meanwhile? I began to read the Story Structure and? Immediately! Procrastination Over!

    Next? I read some more. I edited the new chapter written. Read & edited even more. Next? A little while ago I received, How to Create a Complex Moral Argument for Your Theme! WOW!

    I practically re-wrote all written. Going now on Chapter 3. I believe I am getting it but? I know there is still much more to learn from you. Please take a look at my new Chapter 1 and tell me if I am in the right track or if the story hooks you? Would you please? 🙂

    Chapter 1
    It was sometime in the fall or was it still summer? Theodora was mothering six beautiful little girls under 10 yrs. of age.

    Theodora fulfilled her duty with passion—cooking, washing, cleaning grocery shopping, sewing but mainly? School matters—teacher/parent conferences, extra curriculum activities for her girls and etc., etc., etc.

    Theodora’s aim & purpose for her life? To equip those girls for a productive future—training that she lacked in her own childhood. Ah! What a noble endeavor! Did Theodora succeeded? Many years later the record shows? Indeed! Theodora succeeded big time but …

    O well? That’s a big but that will take many pages to tell. Let’s go on. Where to start? O yes! It was sometime in the fall or was it still summer?

    Theodora and her clan lived in a three-bedroom house with an apartment in the back of it.
    This little house was located in the quaint little town of Westwego in the suburbs of New Orleans, LA. It was a rather small house to accommodate them all. Thank goodness for bunk beds and Theodora’s ingenuity? She made it all a fairly comfortable place to live but for? The outdoors playground? The street became it. The streets of Westwego were safe & quiet at that time. There the children played hard and at their heart’s content when Theodora deemed necessary for them to play.

    And? There, at the end of the school year and the beginning of that summer?

    Theodora discovered the Book of Books for the first time in her Catholic life. Amazingly? The words in the Book would just about jump out of the pages to land in Theodora’s heart. Theodora was enthralled! In the midst of her motherly activities? Theodora journey in the words of the Book. She came to find herself in the spiritual realm outside of anyone’s knowledge in her world at that time of her life. The result?

    Man! O man! The eery sound of the ambulance carrying her to the nearest mental hospital. Her mind snapped! The prognosis? Theodora might never recover from her broken mind. Oh?

    No hope. Yet? Three short days later? Theodora is back at her motherly duties only? This time? She has to set a timer to remember what was the next thing she needed to finish or start. Was it cooking? Was it washing or? Wrapping the next Christmas gift?

    WOW! Broken mind or broken heart? Theodora would not be seduced by the adversities of the moment. Theodora would not be distracted from her duties as a mother in a dysfunctional family environment. Oh?

    Dysfunctional? By all means! Three of those six precious girls came from her womb—the fruit of her first marriage. The other three precious little girls? The fruit of her partner from his first marriage. Her partner?

    O man! That’s the tale to tell in the pages of A Mother In A Dysfunctional Family for it all started out with an unwholesome partnership. Her partner?

    Mr. Big Stuff. A good man only? A man of the flesh obsessed with money & power and the charming beautiful intelligent Theodora—a woman of the intellect. A woman of intellectual clout only? Emotionally captivated by a fantasy world of her own making.

    This statement leaves much to the imagination of a bad Mr. Big Stuff and a good Theodora but … there is not such a monkey. Mr. Big Stuff is not all that obsessed with money & power & beautiful Theodora only—he is in fact a very astute individual that offers much to the world of troubled people and? Theodora? She is not as charming beautiful intelligent & intellectual as she pretends to be. Even so?

    To the estimation of that Theodora at the time? She had no intentions of submitting to the obsession of a man obsessed with money & power without any intellectual clout to match that Theodora’s clout.

    Theodora’s only aim? To get financially supported to stay home and raise her precious little girls. Noble aim? To say the least. Regardless, noble as her aim was in a way, her aim did not justify her means—she sold her body to obtain her means as it later on the Master convicts her on the spot.

    But at the time? Theodora justified her means because in recent years she had tasted close to three years of bitter disappointment with the male element of the human race. Luis Pacific—the father of her precious girls—the husband of her romantic dreams?

    Luis was not able to fulfill the wantings & desires & unrealistic expectations of this romantic& passionate Theodora. So?

    The tragedy of dysfunction begins. The victims? Three precious little girls she had brought into her fantasy romantic world that came to an end some nine years after her wedding to this Luis Pacific—an intellectual wonder.

    Rattled by the stormy winds of passion & rage at what she thought to be her Luis betrayal? She tore her wedding gown into a million pieces and threw her wedding ring at the same Luis that she thought to be her prince in shining armor and?

    Here again? This situation leaves much room to portrait bad man against good woman. It is not so. As the story develops? The real facts about it all will surface to lead all to enter in the strait & narrow gate that will end at the mountain peak of an unknown peace & love never before enjoyed in the troubled life of many souls.

    At that moment of Theodora’s life though, Theodora loss connection with her romantic prince by hearing words from his lips that she totally misconstrued as the most offensive words against all her morally romantic principles. So?

    Theodora left the cradle of her dreams. The home of her romantic fantasy to live happily ever after by the side of her prince nurturing her precious little girls? It all came tumbling down.

    O the tragedy of romantic love. O the tragedy of the make believe world of fairy tales and make believe dressed up whales. The story of A Mother In A Dysfunctional Family begins.

    Thanks! And thanks be to our Master Who sent you to me. Hahaha! HalleluYah!
    His love in my heart for you and for all, thiaBasilia. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for stopping by, Thia! Great to hear you’re enjoying the blog. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t allow me to critique, but if you have a specific writing question, feel free to ask. 🙂

  15. You’re digging in my ribs, again, Katie. It hurts, but I need to hear it. I think I’ll send myself this post to read again (and again)

  16. Max Woldhek says

    In my first book (currently in the hands of beta readers), the main villain is an irrational, bitter man. I’ve only got one or two scenes from his point of view; mostly it’s from the perspective of his nr. 2, who thinks the plan is daft and dangerous, but feels compelled to go along anyway because he owes his boss too much to bail out, even though he thinks this is likely to end in disaster.

    I wrote the book before I had read more than the most rudimentary advice on how to write, so let’s see what the beta readers think of it (did it that way because I suspected that if I binge-read a library’s worth of advice – like your books 😀 – I’d become overwhelmed and unable to fend off the Goblin of Discouragement when it climbs up my back and whispers “there’s no way you can learn all of that, so why even try?” )

    Now that I KNOW I can squeeze out a story of a hundred thousand words, reading writing advice isn’t that intimidating anymore.

    PS. Amazon finally delivered Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. Once I finish the first draft of my second book, I’ll dig in. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, I think that was a really smart approach. Sometimes it’s best to get a little “doing” under our belts before we learn too much.

  17. This is well put. I’ve always liked one test of complexity: a “moral argument” is meaningless if you know right off what the right choice is–and yet that’s where preachy writers start, beating on a straw man. A story’s complexity comes from capturing how in real life we *don’t* easily know what’s right or wrong, and how hard it is to find the right way. (And/or when there is no single right way.)

  18. Yay for this post! The story I’m currently working on was devised with the intension of having a complex moral dilemma at it’s core (with several minor ones also thrown in). Gray areas are my favorite parts of stories. I love to think and be challenged by a book and so I strive really hard to present these same shades of gray in my writing.

    One of the reasons I loved Captain America: Civil War was because it didn’t choose a side in the moral conflict. It didn’t even choose one at the end. And I find it very interesting when stories do that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agreed! I’ve been thinking about Civil War several times during this discussion. More often than not, the most interesting themes are those that pit right against right, rather than wrong against right.

      • Maybe if I didn’t follow thi blog I could ponder for a second if Iron Man was right. Yet for the avengers on his side the stakes were non-existant; they have their identity discloed to the public or the don’t have closed-ones that could get caught in the villain’s attack.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Good point–although I think we could argue that losing Cap’s half of the Avengers (who, in some ways, would qualify as loved ones) was definitely at stake.

          It’s also true that from our viewer perspective–where we’re *pretty sure* Stark’s side made the wrong choice–we know there will be consequences to this decision down the line.

  19. I struggle with this aspect of storytelling. Maybe because I’m a pantser and don’t really plot these things out. I tend to create characters and run with them. Undoubtedly I have themes, but I don’t know that I would call them complex. Maybe. My current protagonist is trying to find her place in the world while working out her faith as contrasted with the super fear-based religion she was brought up with.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Which is a really nice thing to contrast! All kinds of juicy things to explore there. Nothing wrong with just throwing your themes on the page in the beginning and feeling them out. You can always come back and tighten them in revisions.

  20. Thanks for your reply. Maybe I should have worded my request in reference to your book Story Structure? Am I on track applying the principles in your book?

    Anyhow? I need to dig a little more in your fantastic blog & books to find an answer for my question.

    Coming to think about? I am blessed though. I already found one of my followers showing keen interest in the draft. Somehow my Katie? Father is leading all the way. He will show me which way to go.

    And you & your books? A precious gift from Father. To Him be the honor & esteem for every minute detail of my life. That’s for sure. I know it is the same for you.

    Thanks for your reply. I am soaking in all great info in your books & articles. I hope later on I’ll will make more relevant questions. Time permitted? Keep in touch. love, thia 🙂

  21. This post reminds me of “The Eternal Champion” by Michael Moorcock. By the end of the book, the protagonist of the story could be viewed as a “bad guy” by some readers, and I have a hard time myself feeling that the lengths he went to in resolving the story issues could be considered “good.” He of course had his reasons for what he did, and they were expressed in a way that made me understand why he did what he did, even if I didn’t fully agree with them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as the story was compelling and it made you think, I’d say the author did a good job! Sounds interesting, at any rate. I’ll have to check it out.

  22. Sunny V Shine says

    Thanks for this, I’ve got a story I’ve been working on that has a distinct moral to it, but I don’t want it to end up being preachy. Consequently, I think I’ve been doing everything I need to in order to make sure it doesn’t without even realizing it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ironically, sometimes this topic gets trickiest when you start out with a specific moral argument in mind. But as long as you’re aware of how to pull off the complexity in a fair and honest way, you’ll be fine.

  23. Hola! Just dropping by to say hello. Looks like a good here.

  24. This is so great! I went back through my WIP, after one of your earlier posts (can’t remember which one, but it’s one of many of yours saved to Evernote) on discovering your themes. I found three I hadn’t been aware of – the biggest (more plot oriented) is nativism/race relations, only they’re all different “alien” species, with the antagonist trying to cut her species off to “protect” them from the influence of the rest.

    The protagonist mirrors her in that she hates one particular species (the antagonist’s), and sees nothing good in them, but her job will be to stop the antagonist’s plan even though it’s something she might wish for, if the consequences weren’t so dire… Of course, the antagonist is willing to use terrible methods to achieve her goals and the protag isn’t, but I kind of liked the mirror thing.

    The protag’s arc is that she has to realize not all of these people are awful and learn to work with one to stop the antagonist.

    Now that I’m aware this is a theme, I’ve been trying, in revision, to show how/why these characters feel this way without beating the reader over the head with it…I’m not sure I’m succeeding…

    Thank you! I’d never have picked up on it without your posts!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good job! One of the key focal points of theme and character arc is not the differences between protag and antag, but the *similarities.* It sets up these great “mirror moments” when the protag can look at the antag in horror with the realization We’re just like each other! It’s a huge personal catalyst for the protagonist.

  25. This is one of my favorite topics! I think the best way to have a real moral argument is to dramatize a question you don’t even know the answer to, and work out the tension in the narrative. But sometimes that’s easier said than done, and a story that is too morally ambiguous can be alienating. And sometimes we are burning to write about a particular issue where we do know what we think, which makes it doubly important to understand and portray why someone might think differently — the very interest that draws us to the issue is clouding our view of the other side. To me, stories that make an argument are usually less interesting than stories that embody an argument.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree with this! Most of my “moral” themes usually end up being things that are really comparatively very small–such as responsibility in family situations, forgiveness of one’s self, overcoming fear, etc. So they’re topics that I deal with personally and that I *don’t* always have clear-cut answers on. I always end up learning so much from my characters! :p

      • I so much agree! I think learning from the characters is one of the main reasons we need stories!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Definitely. Really, it’s the whole point: stories are a reflection of life.

          • Joe Long says

            I would ask, “But how can he learn from our characters – as they are only ourselves?”

            What I’ve experienced is the actions and reaction. Once I’ve created a premise and a scene and something is said or done, then I am the Devils’s advocate, questioning myself. “Is this true? How would this (type of) person respond?”

            Yes, the answers come from within myself, but it’s something I might not otherwise access. I come away with a deeper understanding.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better.

  26. Bookmarked!

    This is one I definitely need to pay attention to for my superhero series. Especially in a superhero setting, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the “that’s the bad guy, so go beat him up” mentality. My husband and I have worked in a number of characters who aren’t completely what they seem on the surface, and they reveal more of themselves over time. We’ve already established future plot points where a couple of our heroes make some pretty drastic decisions, influenced by temptations provided by the very forces they’re fighting against. There’s also a rivalry between a particular pair of superheros that escalates to such extremes that “Well, HE’S the one who started it!” just won’t cover.

    Unfortunately, just at this particular stretch of encounters we’ve been writing lately, it’s a lot of “bad guy runs in, good guys kick butt”, and it’s getting a bit stale. My husband and I take turns leading the story, and when it gets to my turn… I’m not looking forward to it. 😛 We’re both guilty of perpetuating a few of those “black-and-white” scenarios, and I’m not about to make it any better with my current plans for the next story as they stand.

    “The methods with which he is trying to achieve the desired end?”

    I didn’t think about that before, so I’ll start looking through my notes and see if I can fit that in. It makes a lot of sense, considering my main character.

    “Interpersonal conflict pitting him against someone he loves or respects?”

    Like the cop! 😀 It’s always great to piss off a cop with your boderline-illegal antics, isn’t it? 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Such good thoughts here! You’re totally right that this is an easy trap to fall into in a genre such as “superheroes”–in which the very title tells you who’s the good guy. It can be way too easy for an author to justify a character’s actions simply by making him the “good” guy against the “bad” guy.

  27. This is so cool.

    Especially since like, some situations ARE black and white? But not a lot of situations.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly. It makes the truly black and white situations so much more interesting in themselves.

  28. My character, Victor, is a scientist, so you’d assume he’d wear a white lab coat, though he’s creepy since he wants to turn everyone into super-soldiers against their own will and clone them. Samantha wears black since she is, after all, goth. Amelia wears a navy blue suit with a gold star on it when she fights as StarGirl, and black boots and black gloves, plus a black mask that goes between her eyes.

  29. Well, scientists often wear white lab coats, and you said not to make your villain wear all black and your character wear all white, but goths do wear all black, but my character StarGirl has a dark blue suit and a black mask for her eyes, but fights criminals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, gotcha. I was talking more metaphorically, in the sense that we don’t want to create one-dimensional villains who are *all* bad and equally one-dimensional heroes who are *all* good.

  30. I guess what my theme is mainly in my stories is good versus evil, and she deals with a lot of criminals like Victor, and Samantha is kind of like an anti-hero, since she kills and tortures criminals but enjoys it, which makes her creepy, since StarGirl doesn’t like that Samantha enjoys inflicting pain on criminals.

  31. I’m writing a satire, and the premise is so absurd and ridiculous that it’s impossible to present it as a serious alternative. So instead I made the main conflict about society trying to stop the protagonist.


  1. […] It’s common writing advice to NOT think about your theme until later drafts, and I politely disagree. (wow with manners like this just call me Richard Campbell Gansey III) Your story IS your theme. Your theme isn’t something separate that you impose upon your story. Your theme is inherently in your story. If you don’t start digging for your theme now, it’s going to get buried later. Ultimately, your characters can be realistic, your plot can be a page-turner, your setting can be vivid — but the theme is what makes your story a story. If you want to learn more about your story’s theme and moral argument, check out this post. […]

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