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Friday, October 7

Don't Like it? Tough! Making Characters Make Tough Choices

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Choices are big in fiction. Every protag faces countless of them every book, and the ones that really make them struggle are the ones the reader is going to remember. But as we're plotting our stories, are we remembering to make those choices tough?

So much of plotting is figuring out how to get the protag from page one to the end, and we know what has to happen (or not) and work to get our protags there. But sometimes this can accidentally steer us to always letting the protag find the way out, even if we make it hard for them. Since we need to move the story forward, they need to achieve whatever piece will move them a step closer to the resolution.

I find myself doing this from time to time, especially when I'm at a sticky point or unsure where to go. I'm so focused on getting through the scene, I don't always think about what might be best for that scene. It's easy to miss opportunities to really crank up the tension.

As you work on your scenes, look to see if you're just getting your protag to the point they need to be at, or if you're doing things to them that will force them to make tough choices. Ask yourself...

1. Are the obstacles always external challenges they need to deal with?

These things can be sneaky because there's usually lots of action and stuff going on. But when you look closer, you realize that the protag is just fighting to get through something. There's no real decision making going on. While this is fine for some scenes, having every scene fit this format can lead to a story that feels shallow and never grabs emotionally. We know the protag is going to win, so there's not a lot of tension even if the scene is exciting.

2. Are there any internal struggles?

Internal conflict is often where the fun stuff happens. Everything about your protag wants them to go one way, but they kinda have to go the other way to get what they want. Are they willing to sacrifice to get their goal? Are there any ways you can up the tension by making it harder on your protag to know what to do? If a protag has to go completely against character to get what they want, the reader probably won't see it coming.

3. Are the choices hard?

A tough choice is one where either way the protag is toast. But they have to pick something, even though they know it's going to have consequences. These are great because the outcome isn't obvious, so it keeps the reader guessing as to what will happen. It also allows them to consider what they might do in the same situation, helping them to connect to the character. Be careful not to mistake a tough choice with one that looks tough, but really isn't. Look at the options. If the "right" choice is clear, even though that choice is something that will be hard to do (or hard to deal with), it's isn't really a choice. It's just something hard the protag has to do.

4. Is the outcome easy to predict?

No matter how touch the choice, if readers can see it coming it won't keep them all that engaged. (Unless it's something they dread coming and see it barreling down on them). So make sure that there's some mystery to which way the story will go, and not be a direct line from what they want and what they need to do to get it.

Although it can be scary, don't be afraid to write yourself into a corner. Sometimes that's just what you need to force yourself to think outside the plot. Narrow your focus to see what would be great for the scene, as well as pull back and see how it fits into the bigger picture.

Are your characters facing tough choices? How often do you throw choices in their way? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I especially like the 'tough choices' bit. There's nothing more boring than a book where the main character sails through every major choice they have to make, especially if every other element of the plot makes it painfully obvious what they're going to do beforehand.

  2. Yes tough choices make a novel for me--but are so hard to write. Definitely easier for external conflict but its usually the internal one that stays with you and touches you.

  3. You're right that tough choices are important to keeping a story interesting. Sometimes, I want to be nice to my characters and let them sail through too much and then have to go back and revise. I can't wait to see how you force your characters to make touch choices when I get your book for the holidays.

  4. Thanks for this, Janice. This really helps me with my plot gremlins. In fact, after reading this, I went off to the gym and while exercising, came up with a totally new direction for my current chapter based on your advice!

    I hope you don't mind if I link to this on my blog, because my next blog post is going to pertain to plotting issues and obstacles.

  5. I love internal conflict! And great advice, telling authors to not be afraid to write themselves into corners. It's good to go to the scary place, at least for awhile, and even if you don't end up using the scary place in your final version. My toughest corner for my novel was how to get a particularly stubborn character to forgive her ex-best friends. She was really hard to convince!

  6. Link away, Lisa. And grats on the new direction!

  7. Thank you for this post. Particularly for the idea of staying within each scene and not thinking about the outcome. Seems so simple but I hadn't thought about it that way. I also love the suggestion of writing your character into a corner. Very helpful!

  8. Happy to help, Fran. I've found that so many "seems so simple!" things really help, and we're usually so close to our work we don't notice or think about them. I'm always suddenly seeing something I never have before.