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

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 of the argument 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.

Anatomy of Story John TrubyFor 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

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.


  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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