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

choice [1]Last month I began a series on story lessons learned or refined during my multi-day Story seminar with Robert McKee [2]. (It was fantastic. If you get a chance to attend, I highly recommend it.) The first post [3] 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 [4] 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 [5]

About Jan O'Hara [6]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [7] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [8]; Cold and Hottie [9]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [10]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.