All Hail Dilemmas: Why Your Characters Need to Make Tough Choices

choiceLast month I began a series on story lessons learned or refined during my multi-day Story seminar with Robert McKee. (It was fantastic. If you get a chance to attend, I highly recommend it.) The first post was about cultivating the gap between reality and expectation, or Turning Points. This month, I wanted to talk about the necessity of giving characters agency, or setting them up to make active, well-structured choices in fiction. (Even if their ultimate choice is not to act.)

To illustrate the points McKee made, here’s a scenario to contemplate:

On the edge of a forested rest stop in southern California, two characters stumble across a scene of animal cruelty. A crowd of thugs has congregated in a meadow just south of the parking lot. They’ve nailed two dog leashes to a stump and, armed with pointed sticks, take turns poking at their terrified hostages.

One of our characters arrives by motorcycle and is taking a leak in the park when he overhears the sounds of canine distress. He’s wearing leathers and zips his pants with a hand decorated by crude prison tattoos. The last thing he wants to do is become embroiled in local conflict, what with the $200,000 in his saddle bag, the arrest warrant out in his name, and the Mexican border a whisper away.

The other drives a Prius with an Amnesty International bumper sticker. She’s hungry but rather than drive distracted, she pulls over to snack on a chocolate vegan granola bar made by the green company she founded. It’s a sweltering night but she’s also a survivor of sexual assault, so when she cracks the windows to cool off and hears yelping and male jeers, the last thing she wants to do is investigate.

In this scenario, which for our purposes takes place in a cellular dead zone, let’s assume both parties make the choice to render immediate aid, if they can. And let’s say that a careless foot and a dry twig have now ruined their attempts at stealth.

Without weapons and heavily outnumbered, with the gang turning in their direction, they have a second choice to make. Which of these two people will run to their vehicle and drive away? Who decides to act as a decoy and loses the thugs in the forest, looping back around to free the animals?

For the sake of illustration, let’s assume they both pick the second option and return to the clearing with only enough time to release one pup. Who selects the yappy Pomeranian? Who frees the black Lab?

Takeaways about choice:

First, McKee makes the point that character can only be revealed when protagonists are forced to make choices under pressure.

Characterization refers to the sum total of all external, visible character traits—what you could learn about a character by following them around and carefully observing. Age, gender, sexuality, IQ, history, educational experience, family life, style of dress, where they reside on the introversion-extroversion scale, etc.

Character, on the other hand, is what emerges when protagonists are forced to make choices under pressure as they pursue their Object of Desire (external goal). Thus, it is possible, as in the above scenario, to have two people whose characterizations appear diametrically opposed, but whose choices declare that, in the matter of animal affection at least, their characters are identical.

Readers understand intuitively that people are not what they seem.

We see a smooth, polished exterior and assume there will be something rawer beneath, and the possibilities intrigue us. Therefore, if you don’t take care to show the difference between character and characterization through choices made under pressure, you’ll risk a) making your fiction feel unrealistic b) disappointing an audience that is primed for revelation.

Choice is governed by the biologic principle of energy conservation.

Living creatures have a biologic imperative to save their energy for eating and procreation. Therefore, within the limits of their world view, whenever a character is pushed out of a state of equilibrium by forces of antagonism, they will always elect to take the smallest step that can return them to balance.

Note the phrase “within their world view”. What is conservative will vary wildly from one character to another. For example, have your antagonist slam a wooden door in the face of the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey and she might simply sniff and make a catty remark about manners. Do that to Rambo and I can’t say exactly why, but the word sawdust springs forcibly to mind. What this means is that, once we understand a character’s world view…

…If you’re not careful to give them conflicts which require real choices with real stakes, we can predict what they’ll do in a given scenario.

This is why you can read a novel for the first time and experience a sense of familiarity. To escape that sense of déjà vu, structure a character’s choices so that any decision they make involves an element of sacrifice (real stakes, something they must give up) and dilemma.

Make your characters pick between two equal, but mutually exclusive goods, or between the lesser of two evils.

Though romantic triangles are often used to good effect for just this reason, the choice doesn’t have to be between two people.

It could be between a person and a lifestyle, between a person and an ethic, between two professions, etc. As long as your characters must choose between two things of more or less equal value, and in doing so relinquish something of value, you’ve got yourself a workable, durable conflict. (eg. Think of Dangerous Liaisons, where the Vicomte de Valmont must choose between true love and his reputation as a heartless sexual conqueror.)

So in summary, to structure your story with optimal conflict: open up a gap between a character’s appearance and behavior; make their decisions require elements of sacrifice; make them pick between two options of roughly equal value; and rescue the black Lab.

Easy peasy, right?

What do you know about structuring choice in fiction, Unboxeders? Have any references to recommend? Are there any movies or books that you think have structured character choices in a particularly effective manner? If so, what did you admire?

Part III in this series located here


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    What do you have against Pomeranians? For all you know, the yappy little one woke its master who was about to die in a house fire, and the Lab has never done anything but eat and scratch.

    Other than that, sounds good.

    I love it when a character makes a choice seemingly against type, but then you realize the author has placed a subtle hint or two, long before this point, to indicate that such a thing was possible. Some little interaction with another character, in a different setting, that shows a glimpse of the steel inside so the choice doesn’t come completely out of nowhere.

    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..The fractal nature of plotting a novel

    • Susan James says

      I gotta second that. My Frodo is not yappy. In fact for several weeks after we got him, we wondered if he was mute. Now, poodles- they’re yappy. Otherwise, great post.

  2. says


    McKee shines on this topic and you’ve summarized his points beautifully. I especially endorse having characters make choices that surprise us.

    When you have the biker choose the Pomeranian and the rich liberal choose the black lab, or the reverse, you have to explain why. That makes for a more interesting story.

    It’s easy to grasp the idea of moral or tough choices when they’re starkly set up in exercises like the one above. When I explain in workshops that a moral choice is one between two rights or two wrongs, I see heads nod.

    What I don’t see, later, are strong moral choices arising in the pages of manuscripts. Why is that? It’s because while it’s easy to get the principle in the abstract, stories do not necessarily arrive with moral choices built in.

    Mostly authors set a problem for their protagonist and pile on complications. Main characters have something to do (if we’re lucky) and the doing grows harder. That’s fine but it doesn’t always box a hero or heroine into difficult decisions.

    A useful way to introduce a choice into a story that doesn’t have one naturally is to give a different character the power to force a choice upon the protagonist. For instance, fill in these blanks: “If you do [X], then it’s going to cost you [Y].”

    If that smacks too much of villainy for you, then think instead of adverse consequences. Pick anything your protagonist must do along the way–anything. Now work out how, if done, it can hurt your protagonist or someone else. Reveal that consequence and mark the moment of decision.

    Costs and secondary characters are key variables in the equation that is a moral choice.

    In the example above we easily put ourselves in the place of the motorcycle outlaw and the Prius driver…but their dilemmas wouldn’t be dilemmas without the dog taunters, the police or their respective pasts.

    To put it differently again, you can create a tough choice at any moment in a protagonist’s journey. At *ANY* moment. Do do so, however, you will have to add a consequence or utilize another character in a way you hadn’t thought of.

    You will have to surprise yourself. Or is it really a surprise? Maybe it is deliberate craft.

    • says

      “If you do [X], then it’s going to cost you [Y].”

      I agree, Don. Was thinking as I took this course and wrote this piece that so many novels drive characters toward a single outcome. “Will they slay the monster or won’t they?” Well, push a protagonist in front of the dragon and cut off all her escape routes, and it’s hardly surprising that she’ll try. (I’m seeing this is one reason why I can love certain quest movies or romances and feel bored out of my mind with others.)

      The Goal-Motivation-Conflict database doesn’t take care of this. I like the idea of another box to address stakes and dilemma.

      Then there’s the need to make the thinking behind the choices clear to the reader, but that’s another skillset altogether.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Spring Sharesies (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  3. says

    You’ve laid this out so clearly, Jan — you’ve inspired me to look back at my manuscript and see where I can raise the stakes! Thank you.

  4. says

    Thank you for making the valuable distinction between techniques used to characterize, and imaginative moments of choice that establish character. I also like Donald Maass’s reminder that choices only register when they cost a character something important. In my latest, I amp up that cost by making the hard choice one that goes against prevailing notions of justice, and that also jeopardizes my character’s chance at happiness. In her case, a feeling of outrage overwhelms both her sense of public morality and her personal hopes for the future.

  5. says

    As I read this, I can’t help but think of “Write Your Novel From the Middle” by James Scott Bell. At the midpoint of the novel, the character faces his greatest dilemna–to continue to act and be who I was or make THE CHANGE. By beginning our plotting process from that point, we automatically introduce the first dilemna into our stories. Like Don said, though, we can introduce those dilemna’s anywhere. And what better way to reveal a character’s character, right? I’m just finishing up Breaking Bad on Netflix (I’m always behind). Walter White faces a moral dilemna in every episode. We not only learn who he is at the beginning, a man who will do anything to protect his family, but we slowly see who he becomes, a man so engrossed by his ego that he actually endangers and threatens his family (I have two episoded to go, don’t ruin it for me). But we see that change via the moral dilemna’s he faces and how he chooses, making worse and worse choices as he goes. Great post, as always. Love this site!
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..The Fault In Our Stars – the story structure

    • says

      I couldn’t watch all that series, Ron. Found it too dark. But the writing was superb. From what I saw, Walt was constantly faced with a series of lose-lose choices, often of his own making. I’d go so far as to say they structure he faced lose-lose-lose-lose choices–hence the complexity of the series, and why its viewership is so rabid.

      I haven’t read that book of Bell’s but heard about it just yesterday. Thanks for the recommendation.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Spring Sharesies (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  6. says

    This is a great article, thanks! And I really appreciate Donald Maass’ additions, very thoughtful/ helpful.

    I disagree with the element of sexual assault in the example.

    Too often we place this detail on female characters, it’s almost an automatic characterization. Some authors seem to think the only way a woman can be “strong” is as an aftereffect/ result of assault.

    I don’t think a woman needs to have been assaulted to be either strong or fearful, esp in a situation with danger and people hooting, etc.

    *Anyone* would feel uneasy in that situation.

    In this scenario, it would be far more interesting (though still irrelevant) to have the male be a victim of sexual assault.

    At the end of the day, sexual assault is a terrible thing. It’s something that is prevalent and far too common in our society, and I don’t think it should be used casually.

    Too many writers lean on it, rather than really considering the various possibilities of fully developed female characters. If it’s discussed/ used, it should be meaningful & thoughtful; and not just a needless addition to “why she’s scared.”

    It’s so overused many publications have put notes in guidelines. To quote Shimmer’s guidelines (as example): “…we are unlikely to be interested in rape stories, and encourage writers to find other dimensions to explore with their female characters.”

    That being said, I think the overall concept of the article is really great. Combined with Donald Maass’ comments, it makes me rethink a lot of my stories.


    — Arley
    Arley Sorg´s last blog post ..Beauty Tips for Fiction: 5 Ways to Make Your Writing Shine!

    • says

      Arley, I make no claim to brilliant writing in the character examples–or in any other location, for that matter. ;) They’re both tropes, aren’t they? If they served their purpose for talking about Story, I’ll consider myself pleased.

      The discussion about sexual assault in fiction is a WHOLE ‘nother kettle of fish and beyond the scope of this article.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Spring Sharesies (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  7. says

    What a fantastic article you’ve written Jan. You hit the nail on the head, “…If you’re not careful to give them conflicts which require real choices with real stakes, we can predict what they’ll do in a given scenario.”

    There’ve been too many books I’ve had to push to finish because I knew exactly what was to happen next. The choices and stakes were easily predictable.
    Dede Nesbitt´s last blog post ..My Writing: Southern, with a Side of Cake

  8. Nancy Hatch says

    I think I just found the answer to a WIP I’ve been rewriting forever. My protag is far too predictable and his character is too much on the surface. He faces one crushing dilemma and makes a choice like you describe, but it seems to happen only once at a pivotal point in the story. I think I can apply this much earlier in the story and make him much deeper and more interesting. Thanks for the inspiration.

  9. says

    Thanks for having a mini-workshop here for us, Jan. As a child, I certainly enjoyed the sweeping good vs. evil stories, but as I grow older, I find that the more interesting stories are about choosing between two values, and the circumstances that make you define what your core value is. And the best stories all involve sacrifice. Is this built into our psyche?
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..The Life and Death of Rosco

    • says

      What an excellent summary of McKee’s points, Vijaya. You used a tenth of the words I employed.

      “Is it built into our psyche?” I’m not sure. I know people who see the world in black and white and work ardently to persuade those of us who see grey that we’re in the grip of an optical illusion. But I’d guess that by the time we are adolescents, most people understand there’s an element of loss in every gain, and vice versa. I suspect there’s an element of cultural bias. Duality is a more Eastern notion, I think.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Spring Sharesies (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  10. says

    Not exactly what you were talking about, but your article kind of reminds me of the feminist reading I did of the book Esther when I studied theology. Basically what we did was to look at who actually makes the choices. If you look at Esther’s character, at the beginning of the story, others make decisions for her, but as she develops, she starts making more and more decisions on her own, decisions that influence the story directly.

    This way of reading a story has always stuck with me, and when I read or write, it’s in the back of my head. It may sound obvious, but it can actually render surprising results sometimes. It’s how I define strong characters: those that make their own decisions and don’t depend on others to make those decisions for them, some way or other.

    It’s fun to play with as well. In my first fantasy novel, my MC fights to make her own decisions, but every choice she makes leads to disaster, directly or indirectly, to the point that she doesn’t know what to choose anymore, but she cannot help herself and continues more or less in the same pattern, until a final disastrous choice actually leads to something she never dreamed she could achieve. She becomes the person she wanted to be, but it’s bittersweet; it comes at a price (of course).

    Right… going to stop talking about writing and go back to actual writing, keeping this article in the back of my head :-)
    Andrea van der Wilt´s last blog post ..Religion and diversity

    • says

      If I’ve understood your last bit, you’ve crafted an ironic ending. McKee says, and I’d tend to agree, that the endings which stick with us most are ironic.

      He also used Blanche Dubois as an example of a character who seems to be passive, but who actively chooses again and again to not act in order to remain in a fantasy world. It’s a different view of agency–subtler than many of us write, IMHO–but obviously worked well for Tennessee Williams.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Spring Sharesies (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  11. Priya Gill says

    Great post Jan.

    Had me thinking about it all morning. Then I re-read the post again just now. Really great point about true character being revealed only when the protagonist makes choices under high pressure. It’s definitely a very different perspective and a great way to display the true strengths of the MP. (And perhaps the lack thereof of a side character).

    I am going to definitely keep this in mind while editing my MS.

    Thanks for sharing u’r takeaways from the seminar. Was the story situation yours? Very well written. Has me wondering what would happen next. (Do u know?)

    A shoutout to Don too for further elaborating on the points raised in the post. :-)


    • says

      Hi, Priya. It’s amazing how you can read the same principles again and again, then something gets in at a different level. I’m not sure if it’s his talent as a teacher, that we had auditory and visual input, or that the lessons were so condensed, but McKee’s seminar helped me a great deal.

      As to the story situation, I made it up for this post, modeling it on the example McKee used. It was meant to be an exercise only, but you know how story ideas grow like weeds… We shall see.
      Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Spring Sharesies (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  12. Poeticus says

    Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse devotes a chapter “3, Story: Existents” to setting and character developments. The second chapter “2, Story: Events” appropriately precedes and details why events have initially greater signficance than settings and characters.

    Events antagonize characters to act nonroutinely, to exhibit behavioral traits in contentious circumstances that draw moral dilemmas into crisis. Nonroutine events, reactions to them, are a kernel foundation upon which character development develops. Character characteristics of appearances, identity matix motifs: sex, age, enthnicity, national origin, lifestyle, station, fashion sense, etc., are distinguishable from behavior traits as stasis states, to be ongoing being, static, existents; behavioral trait exhibitions as event processes are dynamic.

    From the example given, thugs torment two dogs. Two people of markedly different identity matrices come upon the scene. The event of circumstance is awareness of a moral wickedness. Thugs tormenting dogs speaks volumes about the thugs behavioral traits. Prone to sadism, maybe they’re apprentice or actual serial murderers in the making. Oh my.

    What to do? That’s the question confronting the two unexpected visitors to the sadistic gathering shape, from Jerome Stern’s <iMaking Shapely Fiction. Three choices: ignore, disrupt, join. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, favors disruption. That’s what any reasonably heathily socially adjusted, functioning person would do. That’s expected by society. Limited room for surprise there.

    Maybe the biker convinces the yuppie to leave and pretends to join in, then cleverly defuses the situation, all the while collecting the thugs’ identities, descriptions, maybe photos, vehicle license plate numbers, names, whatever he can. Instead of turning the information over to investigators, the biker uses it to blackmail the thugs into ever more compromising situations.

    Ah hah! The biker’s a vigilante, exacts poetic justice personally, cruelly, vengefully, as we all sometimes wickedly want to do to wicked people. That would be a surprising though natural behavioral trait that develops character most meaningfully.

    The yuppie does leave, but tracks down the vigilante biker. A dark heart-heart of gold romance ensues. The yuppie pressures the biker to help exact poetic justice. Ironically, shades of gray, the biker and the yuppie have sadistic traits as well, and follow a tragic course toward an understanding they are sinners too. With expressions of their dark psyches leaking, moral crisis limitations rein them in. Surprise, surprise, surprise — each event a natural event of substance begun by thugs sadistically tormenting dogs. Gray individuals and gray individuals, and a moral message Booth would respect.

  13. says

    Utterly fantastic post. You’ve just reminded me that I still need to read McKee’s book on Story.

    This post definitely has me thinking about my novel, which is from two chracter’s POV’s. One character doesn’t have much conflict at first and this idea of choice and consequences might help with that.

    I’m trying to think of stories that deal with choices and most of them have something of the sort. Just one example I really liked was Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in which the two assassins discover they’re marrie to the completion. Either they can kill the person they love or be cast out by their employers and probably killed. That choice fuels a large part of the movie and it’s fabulous.
    Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..You Are Awesome

  14. says

    Great article, Jan! I love the idea of conflict you have to give to the character! You need have to have a conflict. It sounds simple, but most novels that I’ve read that don’t work, such as novels in progress, are because I don’t understand what’s at stake. What’s at stake here if the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants? Why are we reading this? Always make sure the conflict is slowly rising and heading. We want to think it’s heading in one way, and then surprise us.

  15. says

    It’s strange, reading this gave me an idea not for a story but more a dynamic I’d like to build a story around. Have a character make a series of choices that relentlessly take him down down down. And he ends up growing cynical & bitter, then introduce something that demands a final choice that’ll either embed him irrevocably in his descent or lift him out of it. The choice is for something that should motivate him out of his funk. But it doesn’t. He chooses against what we expect.

    Then, ‘2 years later …’, something happens that corrals him into a similar choice, and he’s set to run again … but he turns around and stops dead. He chooses for …

    Then go back and embed small things to make this choice a not-impossible possibility. Don’t get sidetracked in piling on external social & psychological indicators that point one way. We aren’t the sum of external accoutrements, which is often what psychology feels like. Read fiction from cultures that have zero psychology in their discourse, i.e. latin american fiction, and the freshness of it, the stripping-away of psychobabble is so great, disorienting. This is what English-speaking writers need to fight against … the last 4 generations of psychology in our discourse.

    I like McKee for his fight against rigidities in our discourse, whether from psychology, religion, political … In the West for example we’re utterly wedded to the notion of liberal democratic polity. Here in Asia that’s the last thing people consider. It’s utterly absent, and frankly they seem the richer for it.

    Gotta go.


    • says

      I’ll assume you’re long gone, Stephen, but wanted to reply.

      I can arrive at story ideas from abstract concepts, too. It’s a constant source of amazement to me how that works. Human beings are like supersaturated liquids, and the seed crystal can be next to nothing: the name of a song, a swoop of hair over a particular profile, a disembodied title, etc. Then blam! The whole beaker goes solid.

      You have some interesting thoughts in your paragraph! Hope to see more of you in future days.