Last 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?