Let’s face it, fights between pure good and absolute evil are getting old. Black and white morality doesn’t lend itself to nuanced characters, and it rarely feels realistic anymore. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have epic battles that determine the fate of the world. Just paint your story with these colorful dualities.
1. Freedom vs Safety
Freedom allows us to find happiness. But the freedom to drive a vehicle is the opportunity to crash through windows. The freedom to wield a weapon is the opportunity to kill a neighbor. Occasionally, freedom isn’t meaningful enough to justify lost lives and money. Particularly in times of strife, strict regulation could keep terrorists from infiltrating defenses or a deadly virus from breaking out. But just as restrictions might be necessary, a fictional threat could be used to control everyone.
ExampleFor a decade, the allied nations have stared across a field of barbed wire and hidden mines to where the enemy waits. The opposition appears silent, motionless, yet their drone strikes and surprise gunfire disrupt weddings and lay waste to public parks. Spotlights pierce the fog after curfew, seeking the spies who betray the alliance and the smugglers who covet rationed resources. Suspects vanish. After years of government overreach, the people have become discontented. Rebellion brews underground, threatening to boil over. The hero must choose: give the enemy a critical opportunity by coordinating widespread upheaval, or expose rebel leaders to their oppressive governments.
2. Success vs Selflessness
Wealth, happiness, and even survival can come at a price – a price paid by someone else. Is it moral to exploit the resources of a weaker nation when the lives of your citizens are at stake? Is it acceptable to make your grandchildren solve a problem you created, because defeating it now would come at great cost? When resources are scarce and people are suffering, selflessness can be an unaffordable luxury. When a society refuses to give aid, the needy may take it it by force.
ExampleThe cosmos hurl massive meteors at the shadowed half of the world, turning it into craters and dust. Cities become burning rubble; the injured wail over the loved ones who’ve gone still. The fortunate kingdoms reluctantly give way to begging and pleading, offering their assistance. But those that accept it are pressed into indentured servitude. Many refugees refuse, even though their demise is at hand. Instead they coalesce into vicious bands, pilfering prosperous cities, terrorizing civilians. A hero rises from the chaos, but will that hero capture the bandits or force aid from the wealthy?
3. Progress vs Preservation
No society can remain in stasis. Whether it’s from new contact with outsiders, advances in technology, or a shift in the natural environment, all civilizations must change. But the more a society undergoes rapid change, the more people will attempt to preserve the status quo. After all, change isn’t always good, and even when it is, it could come with a cost. Gathering resources for a new device could mean the destruction of sacred spaces. Prosperity from an advancing economy could mean forgetting honored traditions. Survival could require such a daunting transformation that characters are forced to wonder: is it merely change, or is it death?
ExampleFor thousands of years, great mystics have preformed rituals to snuff incoming plagues and nurture feeble crops. But the populace has become educated and irreverent. To replace the mystics, they devise a way to wrench energy from fractures in the land. The mystics witness, aghast, as the great shaking of the earth shatters their devices and opens cracks in their walls. Every day, their achievements crumble further. But the innovators refuse to cease their discordant methods. The mystics remind everyone of their power, promising to use it against the ungrateful. Frightened, the populace calls out for a hero, but will that hero prevent the mystics from doing harm or sabotage the birth of industry?
4. Individuality vs Community
If everyone put the needs of the community above their own, we could create a utopia with no hunger, homelessness, or crime. In doing so, however, responsibility to society would replace personal fulfillment. If everyone pursued success independently, many would create new innovations in their drive to compete with others, bringing them wealth and fulfillment. But some would fail, living a short life of malnutrition and unhappiness. The innovations gained through competition might only benefit the already successful, unaffordable to anyone else. Is it better for us to fail on our own terms or succeed under others’?
ExampleFor generations, humans have endured in a single ship, guarding against the cold vacuum of space. Once born, each person is fitted with a telepathic receiver, conveying the suffering of others and compelling them to complete their responsibilities to the ship. Now, an unknown doctor is disabling the receivers. As people anonymously drop from the system, duties are neglected and fights break out. The independents that are caught refuse to plug back in; they’ve never felt so complete. With each passing week, life on the ship deteriorates for every passenger. A hero is needed. But will the hero locate the doctor and repair the receivers, or destroy the telepathic network?
5. Privacy vs Transparency
Without reliable knowledge, it’s impossible to make sound decisions. The ignorant will harm themselves and others. Unfortunately, revealing the truth can be equally disastrous. If a closeted politician persecutes their fellows, is it okay to out them, even though they’ll be punished for who they are? Does using privacy to evade unfair laws enable those laws to continue? Anonymity is used for unethical practices, but without it, people might be too afraid to speak against injustice. Would society improve if we were completely open with each other, or would it simply allow bullies to target the downtrodden?
ExampleThe physical world has long been abandoned for the instantaneous connections of technology, but divisions still stand between users of the global cybernet. The corporate nations accept only those with verified identification, but between them lie the dark crevices where denizens chat in evolving codes and name themselves what they please. The dwellers of the darknet are as varied as their names. Some trade blackmail. Others flee corporate punishment. Now, a new hacker claims to have the identity of every user across the globe and will give it to the highest bidder. Little does the hacker know their own identify has been revealed to the hero. Will that hero force them to release the information to everyone, give it to some, or destroy it?
Once you try an epic battle between orange and blue, you’ll find it’s great for your story. It provides more opportunity for disagreement among allies, creates a deeper and more nuanced picture, and allows a variety of endings. Your hero can help one side pummel the other, foster balance between the two, choose one at great sacrifice, or even find a solution that works perfectly for all parties. After that, black and white will never do.
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