Giving Characters Choices

Source: The Internet

Source: The Internet

Last time around I talked about character motivation, my philosophy being that interesting fictional characters must have intrinsic motivations as well as external goals. Otherwise, they are merely devices that serve the plot. Placed in another story, people should still have the same qualities driving their actions, but toward a different objective.

For example, if you take Luke Skywalker out of the Star Wars universe and put him in a Chicago slum in the 1920s, he’s still a restless young man with big dreams but an unclear picture of his destiny who feels trapped by his circumstances. Maybe he gets involved in organized crime and eventually becomes Don Skywalker. Perhaps he joins the FBI and foils the assassination of Shirley Temple. He might even go into acting and win an Oscar for his starring role in a Mark Hamill biopic. After all, the resemblance is uncanny.

Today I will build on this concept and discuss giving characters choices. Choice is where the character’s motivations intersect with the plot.

In most cases, a writer knows what her story is about, so her characters don’t really have a choice as to their actions. If Luke Skywalker had decided not go to Alderaan with Ben Kenobi, the second half of Star Wars might have been a bit of a downer. But still, we don’t want our heroes and villains to be like marbles rolling down a slide that leads to the climax. We should give them choices, and then give them reasons to make the correct one for the plot.

I got to thinking about this because of a story tossing around my hard drive for about three years now. I believe I created an interesting main character who is appropriately flawed and who has intrinsic qualities that steer his behavior. His backstory makes him sympathetic, if not likeable. I also included plenty of emotion and a dark, dramatic climax.

Disney is too big to sue me

Disney is too big to sue me

But it doesn’t work.

About every six months, I open it up, read it, move a few words around, add or subtract a line, then stick it back in the nether reaches of MS Word. I just haven’t been able to figure out what is wrong with it. Until now, that is.

Upon hard analysis, I have identified the fatal flaw: When my character’s motivations intersect with the plot, he does not make a choice. He just does what I told him to do, and that sucks the tension out of it. Enlightened by this sudden awareness, I now understand the choice he must make and the revisions I must do to set it up. Unfortunately for him and for his likeability factor, he will make a bad choice. Sorry dude.

Think about the choices you’ve made and how things that seemed insignificant at the time have had a profound impact on your life: The party you almost skipped… where you ended up meeting your future husband. That day you ran back into the house to grab a Milli Vanilli CD for the road… only seconds before your idling car was obliterated by a meteor. That time Obi Wan’s ghost told you to switch off your targeting computer, and you used the force to hit an impossibly small opening in the Death Star’s exhaust port, thus saving the galaxy.

Our fictional characters must have options too. Instead of making them follow a pied piper, imagine the plot not taken. Ironically, by giving them choices, we make their outcomes seem all the more inevitable.

Thoughts, comments, insults?

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I promised no more 80s videos, but, darn it, those cats back then anticipated my blog topics so well. If One Direction has a song about making choices, let me know. For next time.

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33 responses to “Giving Characters Choices

  • VarVau

    This falls along with what I previously said concerning giving room for a character to make their choices. One character I have worked with for a long while was originally down to find a certain, every day device among the remains of an expedition. Allowing her to have a ‘free roam’ within the world I built before ever creating her gave the choice of when and where to find this device. Originally, I had it slated for Chapter 2. She decided ‘no, it won’t be useful here.’ Twenty Chapters later, it still hasn’t appeared–yet she tells me that device will be needed within two or three.

    My characters have two categories of choices: Within their world, and outside their world pertaining to the course of story to make it flow without feeling constructed.

  • nrhatch

    Viva la choice! I expect that you’re MS will benefit from your latest insight.

    Perhaps the best way to really see who our characters are is, as you suggest, to put them in another story, setting, or locale and imagine how they would react.

    • ericjbaker

      Though it is terrible from a marketing/publishing standpoint, that’s probably why I like to mix genres within one story and end up with satirical chick lit serial killer suspense or something equally weird. Because my characters can’t be stock or rote if they can’t rely on genre cliches.

      • nrhatch

        “you’re MS” = code for “I’ve worked on the taxes all day and my brain is fried but I still want to comment on Eric’s post” 😉

        • ericjbaker

          I thought of doing a little editing on your behalf, but I chose (there’s that concept again) to maintain the spontaneity of the moment. Lord knows how many typos I’ve left in my comments on your blog.

  • Kat

    Thanks for this. I recently started writing something new and as pleased as I am with the plot the main character just doesn’t seem to agree. She is a passive character, unable to direct her own life and suddenly I have her making bold life decisions with complete confidence. Instead of letting her be who she is and make the choices I know she would actually make I am fighting with her so that she will be who I want her to be. Now I understand that she has to do some things I may not like but that fall right in line with who she is.

    • ericjbaker

      Sometimes it is tough to find that line between likable and wimpy in a character. In my first full-length manuscript, I tried to make my heroine wounded by her past, but she ended up coming across as a crybaby. In regard to your character… perhaps, when she has to make that bold decision, put her in a predicament that she must make one stark choice or another, so even if she is initially passive, she learns to be brave.

      Thanks for commenting and good luck with your story!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    You’re right: the characters’ choices are an inevitable (though not necessarily predictable) consequence of his/her motivations and personality rather than simply a case of whatever would make the plot cooler. The characters dictate the plot rather than vice versa.

  • nedkelly944

    I’m finding this quandary at the moment. I wrote one book then started writing another conpleted divorced from the first. However, the feedback has been overwhelmingly in favour of a sequel(s). Unintentionally I left the book open to this apparently. The character of the principal player in thhe first one is fixed in my head and this is now going to require a long conversation with the man in my head along the lines of ‘What would do if’ and develop the choices on that with the plot. He may even surprise me with his response! Choices are all important in normal life and so it should be in stories. With the development of the choices the principal character may or may not change. Consider Moses, when he crossed the Red Sea he turned left if he had turned right the Israelis would have all the oil and the Arabs would have the orange juice. How different the world would be now!

    • ericjbaker

      I frequently think about the world would be different if not for random decisions made by an ordinary person, or a difference of two seconds one way or another. Fascinating, and possibly the stuff of future story ideas!

      Hopefully you can find a way to balance your new project with a sequel to the previous one. i have a bad habit of running too many things at the same time and feeling like I’m not making progress on any of them.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I like giving my main characters many opportunities to make the wrong choice before doing what’s right. Assassinate Shirley Temple? LOL ~ where do you get this stuff…too funny! Personally, I love the 80’s videos! Happy Weekend!

    • ericjbaker

      I’m a frustrated satirist with a penchant for absurdest humor. Hence, I pick on child stars from the 1930s. Or whatever other random thing pops into my head.

      If I scare everyone else away, at least I know you’ll swing by twice a week for an ’80s-era rock video.

      😉

  • Arkenaten

    What an eye opener. Now I KNOW where I went wrong…never bought an effin Milli Vanilli cd. Bless you , John, I shall go out and buy one tomorrow. Oh, wait…let me check if the car has not been flattened.
    Once again, entertaining and informative.

  • mynamesnotannie

    Your posts inspire me to go back to my creative writing and finish at least one of my stories.

  • nickkendrick93

    I’m an aspiring writer myself. My area of expertise is science fiction, horror, and spiritual based plots. What I like about your blog post “Giving Characters Choices”, is that it stresses the importance of avoiding formulaic writing. In a way, you have to consider your characters to be almost independent, bound to their own thoughts and motivations. This really opens up a new sort of plot, one that is far less predictable. Thanks for the good read.

    • ericjbaker

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree 100% that, if given freedom, characters can make the story better. I think of it as ‘organic’ plotting. Especially in speculative fiction, which isn’t as bound by reality as other genres.

  • Erin Elizabeth Long

    Great post. I have a tendency to steer my characters away from making bad choices–after all, I’m the girl who screams at the TV, “Don’t go down to the basement by yourself, idiot!”–but those bad choices are the ones that build tension and give the character somewhere to go.

    • ericjbaker

      Story idea: What happens if your TV screams back? OK, maybe that’s a bad idea.

      I mentioned it to another commenter above, but if you put the character in a position whereby they have to make a choice between two potentially bad options, it will seem less contrived when they do take a certain path. This is something I’ve been working on to make my own stories better, since several have been missing that element.

  • A Post for the Uninspired | D. Thomas Minton

    […] posted some nice entries on character creation.  His post from a couple of days ago was about character motivation, and I really liked what he had to say.  Character motivation is one of the key elements to making […]

  • diannegray

    I find it easier to work on 2 or 3 WIPs at a time so when I switch between the characters I’ve given myself enough time to find another roadblock for them to try and get over, under or around. I think if the character is fully fleshed, it makes it much easier for me to know which way they’ll go. If I can’t decide what my character will do, I haven’t fully formed them (and it’s back to the drawing board!)

    Great post 😀

    • ericjbaker

      That’s an interesting approach. I can see a lot of value in it for the obsessive writer (that’s a compliment, by the way), as long as your have the mental powers to keep your stories separated.

      I’m working on two projects right now, not because of a brilliant system but because I can’t not work on something once I get inspired. As a result, I’m constantly frustrated that whichever one I’m not working on at the moment is not getting done. I’m living proof that writers are deranged.

  • kriskkaria

    Hi!
    I nominated your blog for an award, go here to see the mention, http://doesthishappentoyou.wordpress.com/. I think you know the drill but let me know if you don’t.

  • Cheryl

    Hi! I enjoy your blog immensely and appreciate yourthought-provoking posts. I’ve nominated you for the Illuminating Blogger award. You can find out more info here:
    http://cherylbrandreth.com/2013/03/06/illuminating-blogger-award/

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