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MBM: Using a Moral Theme To Make Your Novel Stand Out, by Christopher Rosche

Welcome to the eighth day of March Book Madness. (Schedule and explanation at the bottom of this post.)

Today my friend and fellow writing group buddy is here talking about morality in our stories. Chris wrote an awesome post for March Book Madness last year (link at the bottom), and I’m so excited he agreed to contribute again this year.

So here is Chris, discussing the Moral of the Tale: How a compelling moral theme can make your novel stand above the burgeoning slush pile.


Christopher Rosche:

As a writer, do you ever worry about the competition?

You probably should.

I know there’s a tendency among writers to say that we’re not in competition with each other. Book buying, this opinion contends, is not a zero-sum game.

But is that really true?

In 2012, about 692,642 books were published in the United States. The majority of those—some 391,000—were self-published, according to Bowker, the international book industry research firm.

That is a staggering number, particularly when you realize it’s a 60% increase in self-published books from the year before. Over the past five years, the number of self-published books has more than tripled.

Bowker’s figures only include books published with an ISBN code, and some industry analysts believe the total number of books and e-books published in 2012 is actually greater than 1 million.


An enormous book maze designed and built by Brazilian artists Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo as part of a series of art projects built for the 2012 Olympics in London. The labyrinth was built with 250,000 remaindered, used, and new books.

That’s a lot of competition, whether you self-publish or go the traditional route. For novice novelists like me, the word “intimidating” doesn’t quite capture the feeling I get when I realize my book will someday sit on the bottom of Amazon’s virtual bookshelf with millions of others.

Just to drive this point home further, even if you published a book in 2012, you had less than a 1% chance of it being stocked on the shelf of a brick-and-mortar book store.

The explosion of published writers has no doubt created a book bubble, leaving some to question whether there might be “too many books?”

“Think long and hard about becoming a novelist,” one veteran author warned me at a writer’s conference last year. “I’m sure you’ve been told this already, but don’t quit your day job. It’s a tough business with a lot of books out there competing for attention. And the chances you are going to get published and sell enough books to earn out your advance are infinitesimally small.

“After you’ve thought about it, and you decide you’re going to go through with it, write because you love writing, the process of it. It’s a tough industry.”

I’m still undecided on whether I love the process, and I’m definitely continuing to hold onto my job, but I am committed to someday publishing.

Sobered by the state of publishing, the one question that continues to haunt me is:

  1. What can I do to make my book stand out from the terabytes of unsolicited manuscripts clogging the inboxes of literary agents across the country?

  2. What is the key factor that will make my book so unforgettable that it will sell itself by word of mouth?

  3. A breathless, fast-paced plot?

  4. A bigger-than-life hero?

  5. High-tech gadgetry?

A Compelling Moral Theme

Assuming you can write and have dreamed up a compelling plotline with relatively intriguing characters, I’m convinced one of the key ingredients of making your book more sellable lies in weaving a moral theme into your story. This is a topic not without controversy. Many will disagree.

Leo Tolstoy once said the “most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.”

I believe the best literature is that which expresses a theme or structure that reveals to its readers how we humans are supposed to interact. And I’ve heard from many book lovers I talk to that they are thirsting for value-based or themed stories.

This is not to say that a book should be preachy, self-righteous, or force the beliefs of the author on her readers.

Nor does it mean that authors have free license to espouse one set of political beliefs and its values over another.

But what a great novel should reveal is essential truths about who we are and what makes good human conduct. It explores universal concepts that the vast majority of us can agree on.

Take a look at the top bestselling books of all time: Why is it that great works like A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Le Petit Prince consistently outsell others over the long course of modern fiction?

Each of these books and many others that populate the “all-time best books” lists, by their design, frame our human lives in the context of moral dilemmas.

I’m not alone in this thinking.

Carla Buckley and Jenny Milchman are two critically acclaimed writers who argue that a moral theme can turn a so-so book into sellable material.

Carla Buckner

Carla Buckley

“We believe, that what it is that truly distinguishes a great book—a breakout novel—is one that makes a statement about the human condition interpreted from the writer’s point of view” Buckley said during a workshop with Milchman at the International Thriller Writers conference last year. “One key factor that can take a so-so manuscript and make it salable is when the author expresses a moral viewpoint.”


Jenny Milchman

Jenny Milchman

“Your moral output, expressed in your story, is what readers really want,” said Milchman. “It can be the difference in your manuscript being published.”


Milchman and Buckley point to John Truby, an author and highly regarded script consultant, who contends in his book The Anatomy of Story, that “a great story is not simply a sequence of events or surprises designed to entertain an audience. It is a sequence of actions, with moral implications and effects, designed to express a larger theme.”

These larger themes tend to surface in novels whether the author intended them to or not.

With her first book, Milchman actually didn’t see a theme running through the storyline until after she wrote the book. The theme wove its way somewhat subconsciously through the text as she was writing.

To me, Milchman and similar revelations from other authors proves that the process of writing a book is an expression of what makes us human. Universal themes express themselves through great books because they are there to begin with.

Buckley and Milchman contend a far more effective way to implement a moral theme is to design it into the very fabric of your manuscript.

In classical literature, authors like Tolstoy, Dickens, and J.R.R. Tolkien gave their heroes an inherent moral flaw from the opening of the book. As the story unfolds, the flaw becomes a major obstacle that the hero must overcome to defeat the antagonist. The villain, of course, somehow exacerbates the hero’s moral flaw. As the hero becomes more desperate, he must conquer his fears in order to defeat the villain.

Truby’s book gives us some great advice on how to insert moral flaws into your plot. The first key question that must be answered from the beginning of planning your novel, Truby argues, is:

“What is your hero’s main weakness when it comes to acting towards others?”

As with everything in writing, it sounds easier than it actually is.

If you’re serious about developing a theme, I would strongly urge you to get Truby’s book. But with some help from Truby, Buckley and Milchman, here are some essential steps to get you thinking:

  1. Core values:  Establish a set of core values for each major character. This is not limited to just the hero and villain. Other significant players should have visible values and a few moral flaws. The one danger here is to not let the characters get preachy with their values unless the character is actually some type of religious figure.

  2. Moral conflict:  Set up your story so that the core values of the hero and villain come into conflict. This does not necessarily mean that one is good and the other evil. They may both have valid reasons for believing the way they do. In fact, the more rational their thought processes are for deriving their values, the more intriguing and believable your story line will be. A flawless superwoman will not ring true and a purely evil villain from a Marvel comic book will also turn off more sophisticated readers (those who tend to be avid book buyers).

  3. Moral flaw or weakness. This is essential. In some way, the main character’s inherent weakness must cause him to hurt others, and usually unintentionally. “He is not evil but rather is acting from weakness or is unaware of the proper way to act toward others,” Truby writes.

  4. Moral need:  Your hero must learn how to treat others more humanely by becoming aware of his moral weakness over time. He or she then struggles to improve it in order to grow and live a better life.

  5. Moral problem:  The core plot of your novel must involve a great crisis that causes a collision between the moral values of the protagonist and the antagonist.

It’s imperative that you ensure every major action in your plot reveals another facet of your moral theme. Work to bring out the worst in your hero, forcing her to make life-changing decisions that affect the outcome of her personal growth.

Psychological and Moral Needs

Part of the genius of Truby’s method is his discovery that the most successful stories—whether they be novels or movies—is that the main character should have both a psychological need and a moral need.

“In average stories, the hero only has a psychological need,” Truby writes. “A psychological need involves overcoming a serious flaw that is hurting nobody but the hero. In better stories the hero has a moral need in addition to a psychological need. The hero must overcome a moral flaw and learn how to act properly toward other people. The most powerful characters always have both a moral need and a psychological need.”

Truby recommends writers begin by first creating a psychological weakness, something that is missing from the character’s life that he must deal with in order to have a more fulfilling life. This gives him a psychological need that drives him to change his life for the better.

In the novel I’m currently writing, the main character, Lucas, is a former CIA operative that years ago suffered a personal tragedy in his life. He becomes consumed by his personal loss and begins a life-long quest for justice.

Over time, a desire for revenge overtakes him in a battle during the Iraq War, he kills two innocent boys.  Initially, his psychological need is to seek for justice, a positive virtue that all societies embrace. But this becomes his great moral flaw and he spends the rest of the novel seeking a way to redeem himself.

Providing your protagonist both a moral and a psychological need is a very powerful mixture because it gives your main character greater depth and scope. Much like in real life, his needs and desires begin to affect people around him and the way he interacts with society.

Readers can more easily identify with three-dimensional characters because they reach them at psychological, rational, and emotional levels.

As I am finding, it is no easy task but if you can pull it off, you will be well on your way to writing a novel so compelling and engaging, it will stand apart from that growing pile of slush.

Good luck!

Christopher Rosche

Christopher Rosche spent 25 years in the fast-paced environment of Washington, DC building a career that led from journalism to a congressional post and then to corporate and government consulting. Christopher and his family decided to escape from the nation’s capital two years ago, returning to his family roots in the Midwest. 

While Chris is a creative planning counselor who helps clients develop strategic public affairs and communications programs, he is also pursuing a life-long dream of writing his first novel. Since he was nine, he has wanted to write mysteries, and now is deep in the details of his first espionage thriller.  Chris is married to his amazing wife, Christy, has two children, and a vivacious Shetland sheepdog—the ever spirited Kai. 

Previous March Book Madness Post:

Connect with Chris:

  1. Linkedin: ChrisRosche

  2. Twitter: @ChrisRosche

Rebecca’s thoughts:

See how lucky I am to have Chris as part of my writing group? He often talks in our group about adding moral dilemmas to our writing, and I love the reminder. Because, as he’s said, the greatest novels have major moral themes. Yet many novels I read don’t fully develop this aspect.

What a great way to stand out from the slush pile.

This post and concept has given me so much to think about with my stories. I love it!

Thanks again, Chris!

How about you? How do you use moral themes in your writing? Where have you seen it used in other books? Comment here.


Check back tomorrow for our next guest: Chantele Sedgwick.


If you’re new to March Book Madness, it has nothing to do with basketball (sorry) and everything to do with books. March is National Reading Month, so March Book Madness gives me an excuse to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors.

If you’ve missed any posts, here they are:






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