A couple of weeks ago the raptor sent me this link to a fantasy workshop. As preparation for the workshop, the applicants are asked to ‘write a scene which shows how one of your characters is morally conflicted.’
Now, I love morality questions in fantasy. They’re a great tool for character development, characterisation and culture building in any genre. In fantasy, where so often the societal norm is pretty accepting of murder, theft, pillage, etc, I particularly enjoy drawing attention to the (by real life standards) somewhat sociopathic morality of many ‘heroes’.
What made me stop and think on this occasion, however, was more a question of pacing. All the scenes that sprang immediately to my mind for the workshop prep revolved around the character doing the morally questionable act without thinking about it, and then agonising over it later. Which fits the brief, but isn’t actually what the brief is asking for.
Being morally torn whilst committing the act unquestionably adds tension to the scene. The protagonist is tense, therefore the reader is as well. But it also has the potential to slow the scene down as you explore the reasons behind that tension, the inner conflict, and the decision making process. This isn’t necessarily an issue – it depends very much on the action in question. If you’re in the middle of a high-action scene, however, disrupting the pacing for an internal moral struggle isn’t necessarily the right option.
I guess that leaves you with two options, as a writer. Either you subtly foreshadow the moral conflict so that, when it’s crunch time, the reader already understands without having to explore it further. Or you have the character go right ahead, and deal with the moral fall-out later.