Characters' Choices

© 2010 Daniel Arenson

People's true nature is revealed in times of crisis. When faced with urgent choices, we see what people are truly made of. This is true in life, and it's true for your fictional characters. The best way to show your characters' nature is to present them with a choice... and see what path they take.

Now, I don't just mean a choice between chicken and lasagna. I mean a moral choice, something that will truly test your character. Your moral characters will make the moral choice, even if that involves sacrifice. Your villains will make the immoral choice, hurting others for personal gain. Some characters might think they are the good guys until, when faced with a dilemma, they learn something new about themselves. Some characters might think they're the villain, until a moral dilemma reveals that, deep down inside, they're softies. This is similar to real life: when faced with hardships, we discover who we truly are.

Our choices affect not only us. They affect those around us. They affect the flow of our life. Same in fiction. When your characters make a choice, that directs the plot. That changes the plot for the other characters. A story's plot isn't a rigid path you march your characters down. They twist it and control it by making decisions. Their choices change the story for themselves, and for everyone else. It becomes a complex, interrelated game between all your characters choosing their paths and affecting one another.

Let's consider an example. Suppose your character, Jane, is walking by an icy river and sees a man drowning. Jane chooses to run away, not willing to risk her life to save a stranger. She makes the immoral choice. Jane is consumed with guilt; she learns something new about herself. She learns that she's not as brave as she thought. Because of her guilt, she quits her job as a teacher, feeling she's unqualified to teach children. Because she quit, one of her students fails his final exams, and does not graduate from high school. Years later, the student becomes a robber. During a bank robbery, he shoots Jane (not recognizing her). Jane's choice, through twist of fate, has come back to haunt her. Fate thus finds a way to bring judgment to her.

Now suppose that Jacob was also walking by that icy river, and also saw the man drowning. At first Jacob wants to walk on by. He's had a rough life; he's poor, lonely, and bitter. He feels like he owes the world nothing, like the world's always been cruel to him. He sees himself as a cynical, uncaring person. He starts to walk away, then grumbles and turns back. He jumps into the river to save the man, figuring that if he dies, it was meant to be. He indeed almost dies trying, but eventually pulls the drowning man to safety. It turns out the drowning man is a millionaire, and he rewards Jacob with wealth. By making the moral choice, Jacob finds a new chance at life.

Great fiction works that way. An immoral choice comes back to haunt the character. A moral choice, which often involves sacrifice, can actually bring great rewards to the character.

So don't just present your characters with dragons to slay. Give them some tough dilemmas, and see what happens!

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