Last night, I was watching an episode of PBS's documentary series Secrets of the Dead called "The Hunt for Nazi Scientists." This episode follows the efforts of British and American intelligence agents to capture the data, assets, and personnel behind Hitler's weapons programs in the closing months of World War II.
Before seeing this episode, I hadn't realized how heavily some former Nazi scientists had been involved in the US space program after the war. They were a major factor in the American victory in the Space Race. But the episode also points out the incongruity of cooperating with and even celebrating the achievements of the same people whose earlier work had caused thousands, if not millions, of deaths and incalculable suffering for many survivors.
We can use such moral dilemmas to add depth and nuance to our writing.
See, sometimes writers only give their characters choices that seem like no-brainers. Let someone start a preschool on fire or pretend nothing's happening? Take a dream job or stay stuck in a dead-end one? But in real life, most choices aren't that simple. Every decision we make has consequences, both positive and negative, whether or not we recognize them at the time. And especially when the stakes are high, those consequences have a powerful influence on what we choose.
It may seem like some choices don't have any negative consequences. Would a character really have any reason to regret, say, deciding to serve corn instead of peas with dinner? Unless one of the diners has an allergy to corn, probably not. However, the one (arguably) negative consequence that always accompanies a choice is an opportunity cost.
If you've taken an economics course, you may have heard of this concept. Put simply, it's the most valuable thing we give up by choosing whatever we ultimately select. In the dinner example, the opportunity cost is serving peas (what the host gives up to serve corn). In the case of the Nazi scientists—most of whom, as I understand it, never stood trial for their actions during the war—the opportunity cost was the chance for the US to take a stronger stand against war crimes and hold these scientists accountable for the harm they'd caused.
Calling that a steep opportunity cost/negative consequence is putting it mildly. People can argue and have argued that the moral price of this decision was unacceptable. How could the US claim to stand for justice when it let Hitler's weapons designers go unpunished? On the other hand, consider this: American officials knew that once Germany and Japan surrendered, the Soviet Union would be the greatest threat to the US in the looming Cold War. To preserve their power and security, the Americans needed to stay technologically ahead of the Soviets. That meant the US needed the best and brightest scientists on its side.
In this high-stakes, morally fraught situation, did those people make the right call? I can't answer that question.
While most of our characters won't have to decide between turning a blind eye to war crimes or risking the future safety and prosperity of their countries, we should give them tough choices. Create solid, relatable reasons for a character to want or recoil from each option. For example, say your character finds a lost wallet. They might want to hand it over to the police because they believe that's the ethical thing to do. But they might hesitate because they know that their race or past run-ins with the law will subject them to suspicion, perhaps even false accusations. This dilemma builds tension in your story and provides a chance to show what this character is really made of.
What's the toughest choice one of your characters has ever had to make? Comment below!
(Thanks to Michał Parzuchowski for sharing their work on Unsplash.)