Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Characters need to make choices

Here’s a post from Janet Reid: Choices characters make.

Sailing past choices looks like this: 

Stan and Fran Stanley were longtime members of the Roadside Attraction biker gang. Every weekend was spent on the road, hitting dive bars and juke joints. On an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon in May, as they paused at the one stoplight in Bisbee, Arizona, Fran realized she was three sheets to the wind. That everyone in Roadside Attraction, including Stan, was drunk, and they’d been driving drunk like this for years. She got off her her bike, said goodbye to Stan, to Roadside Attraction, and left her custom painted Harley parked in front of the Five and Dime. Stan watched her go. He revved his bike and followed Roadside Attraction out of town.

Sure, that’s a compelling image (well, ok I hope it is) but what will make us care about about what happens it is what I left out. The choice Stan made:

Stan and Fran Stanley were longtime members of the Roadside Attraction biker gang. Every weekend was spent on the road, hitting dive bars and juke joints. On an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon in May, as they paused at the one stoplight in Bisbee, Arizona, Fran realized she was three sheets to the wind. That everyone in Roadside Attraction, including Stan was drunk, and they’d been driving drunk like this for years. She got off her her bike, said goodbye to Stan, to Roadside Attraction, and left her custom painted Harley parked in front of the Five and Dime.  Stan watched her go. If he went after her, the guys would razz him as pussywhipped forever.  He revved his bike and followed Roadside Attraction out of town.

We implicitly understand Fran’s choice. There’s no need to get bogged down in explaining it.

It’s STAN’S choice that you don’t want to bypass. He’s choosing his path for a reason, and knowing the reason tells us a lot about him. … Not every choice needs to be laid out, but this is one thing to watch for if you’re hearing a lot about “no plot”, “no tension”, “loses momentum.” All those say you’re doing events, not choices. 

So, first: this makes sense! I think it’s quite true that the author needs to present the protagonist as making choices. Among other reasons, aside from the boost to the tension this is what causes the protagonist to feel to the reader like he or she has agency even if those choices are highly constrained.

Second: why in the world did Fran suddenly have this epiphany? After years of driving while drunk, suddenly this revelation? So I don’t think it’s true that we implicitly understand Fran’s choice; the choice makes sense, but not the timing.

Nevertheless, good point. Things that happen to the story when the protagonist is forced to make a lot of choices, especially hard choices:

a) tension goes up

b) intensity increases

c) character gains more of a feel of being a real person

d) character appears to gain agency

I had forgotten about this, but a few years ago I stopped reading one trilogy at the end of the second book because I was bored with the protagonist, and later I realized I was turned off by the protagonist’s passivity. I would add now: if the protagonist had made clear choices and decisions, then even if she had been thwarted in her aims, she would not have come across as passive. More unlucky. So, that is probably one big thing I mean when I say the character gains agency through making choices, no matter what comes from those choices.

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3 Comments Characters need to make choices

  1. Mary Catelli

    decisions, decisions.

    I choose my characters’ social class with an eye to making it possible but not easy to make such decisions.

  2. Pete Mack

    I briefly read the title of this thread as ‘characters need to make cookies.’ Yes, I thought. That is a great idea.

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