Certain genres expect to use a certain kind of conflict. Romance novels aren’t so much about the happy ending (which everyone knows will happen) as the vehicle the author uses to keep the hero and heroine apart until that happy ending comes. Mysteries can plant a variety of clues along the way—red herrings and possible villains are all part of what keeps mystery-lovers returning for more. Suspense novels portray a hero or heroine narrowly escaping mental or physical danger (and likely a combination of both). We know they’ll overcome, but how? Fantasy and sci-fi novels often have good vs. evil, and coming of age novels are about an important lesson that will impact a young character’s life forevermore.
One element that makes any conflict deeper and crosses nearly every genre is when the character faces a moral dilemma. It’s inner conflict at its best! Heroes and heroines of all kind face one moral choice or another, something that should mesh with the rest of the genre. I recently watched a classic old movie portraying a hero from Poland’s upper class whose family doesn’t approve of his working-class bride—even though at this precise point in history, just before the Second World War, a woman with common sense, fortitude and working class experience is exactly what this aristocratic family will need to survive a world where class boundaries blur under a Nazi fist.
Perhaps one of the best representations of a moral dilemma I’ve read lately is found in the debut novel The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. It’s the story of a man fresh from the battlefields of the First World War who takes on the challenging job of lighthouse keeper in an isolated island off of Australia. He doesn’t mind the isolation as he recovers from his war experiences, but on shore leave he falls in love, soon bringing his bride to his remote home. Unlike a Stephen King horror story, this new bride and groom fit well even in so lonely a place. Tom, the lighthouse keeper, is steadfast and meticulous in his duty, and Isabel his bride is head over heels in love with him. But after two miscarriages and a still birth, the isolation doesn’t help Isabel with her sadness.
So it seems like a miracle when a boat washes up on their island carrying a dead body and a living baby.
What could be more fitting than for them to raise the baby as their own, in place of the still born baby Isabel lost only days ago? All the facts point to this little baby as being an orphan, and Isabel knows from a friend’s experience what an awful place an orphanage can be. Having the baby wash ashore seems an answer to their prayers, and Isabel quickly takes the child to her breast and to her heart.
The precious little family thrives . . . until they eventually find out the baby’s mother is still alive . . .
This book leads the reader through a maze of choices anyone might make, choices that seem reasonable and even the best at the time. When they realize the baby’s mother has never recovered from her tragic loss, it’s obvious there is no easy answer to the dilemma—and no really right answer, either. The era and the remote setting are the perfect backdrop to this compelling story.
Although books like this aren’t always an easy read, it’s a page-turner because it’s so easy to place ourselves in the character’s shoes. In the same circumstances, we might have made the same choices—and end up with the same consequences to overcome.
That’s the sign of a successful book—one that not only entertains me with lively and likable characters, but makes me think along the way. My favorite kind of reading material!