Monday, September 11, 2023

Decisions, Decisions: Creating Character Choices That Matter

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A plot is just the series of choices a character makes in a story.

Making a decision is one of the most important things your characters will ever do. Not only does it drive the plot, it creates tension and unpredictability in the story. Readers turn the page to see what happens next, and decisions are all about the "next."

But there's a catch.

Readers have to care about the outcome of that choice.

“Should I have the eggs or the cereal?” is a choice, but no one is going to stay up late to see how that turns out. Because the other half of choosing is the fear that you're making the wrong choice.

(Here’s more with The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)

Now, here's where it gets tricky.
That fear is the reader's fear, not so much the character's fear. Sure, the character will have their own concerns, but what makes that choice matter is how the reader feels about it.

If they care about the outcome of that choice, that choice has stakes for them as well as the character.

If they don't care, no matter how important that choice is to the character, it won't have any stakes.

This is why those exciting action situations where the protagonist's life is in danger often fall flat. Readers know the protagonist isn't going to die. They might be scared out of their wits, but they'll be fine. No matter how “threatening” the situation, there's no consequence to those actions.

Stakes help create consequences, and that makes choices interesting.

(Here’s more with 3 Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel)

A very common choice in fiction is someone choosing between two potential romantic partners—the love triangle.

If Person A cares about those two people equally, and knows one of them would get hurt by that choice, and Person A might then wonder if they made the right choice, does that create stakes?

Maybe, but it depends on more than just choosing one person over the other.

If that choice is a core conflict choice, then it should have major consequences. If the entire book is about that choice, there’d better be high stakes. The more important the choice the more it should affect the protagonist and their life.

If the choice isn't that important to the overall story, then the stakes don't have to be that high and the outcome can have lesser consequences. But odds are good this choice won’t be a plot-driving, turning point type of choice. If it is, that’s a red flag the stakes aren’t high enough.

Both options to a choice should have a consequence that matters on a larger and/or personal scale. If the choice between those two people (or two anything of this type of choice) has no consequence aside from hurting someone's feelings, the stakes aren't high enough to carry a whole story. Because that isn't a choice readers are likely going to care about without something else going on in the story to carry the book.

creating character choices
A popular romance choice is from The Hunger Games between Katniss choosing Peeta or Gale. Readers were rabid to know who she was going to pick. By all accounts, this is exactly the "bad example" situation you want to avoid, right? Two great guys, one girl having to choose.

But step back and look closer at this choice.

If the book had started with Katniss in a love triangle with those two boys, readers wouldn’t really care, because there are no stakes in choosing one or the other. It's the conflicts her relationships with those boys create that make you care about her choice.

It's not just hurting Peeta's feelings, it's hurting those feelings after manipulating him and faking a romance to stay alive. How he reacts to that choice has the potential to affect a much larger problem in the book that readers care a lot about. Every choice Katniss makes has ramifications to her survival in the Games. The book was more than just "which boy does she choose?"

On its own, a choice between two good things with no consequences for making that choice is not going to hold your reader's interest.

As a subplot, or in conjunction with an internal conflict, it can be an effective choice and provide higher stakes.

But only if it has the potential to cause trouble for your protagonist.

And this is the key.

(Here’s more with What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)

If hurting someone’s feelings was all the consequence the protagonist has to worry about, so what? Harsh as that sounds, after some grieving the rejected person will go on with their life and find a much better partner than the jerk who dumped them (grin).

As for the protagonist, nothing bad is going to happen to them for breaking a heart. It's not going to hurt them in the long run, even if they do feel bad about it for a while.

If, however, the rejectee was so upset they killed themselves, that's a pretty serious consequence the protagonist will have to carry around the rest of their life. If the rejectee decided to make the protagonist’s life miserable in revenge, that would cause trouble. If the rejectee was the protagonist’s new boss's sibling, that would create a world of hurt at that new job.

The consequence doesn’t even have to be this overt. It can have subtle ramifications for the protagonist as well. It can cause emotional troubles; it can make them so guilt-ridden it keeps them up nights and causes a ripple effect that damages something that is more important to the story.

(Here’s more with So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

Consequences create high stakes. Whatever the choice, it should have the power to adversely affect your protagonist in some way, even if that problem is down the road some. That consequence might not even happen, but the potential for it should be there.

From a purely plotting standpoint, choices that don't cause trouble are wasted opportunities.

The whole point of a book is to show someone overcoming adversity to win. If there's nothing to overcome, there's no point in the winning. Just look how many fans leave a sporting event before the end when it's clear what the outcome is going to be. There's nothing left to lose, so seeing the win doesn't matter.

Take advantage of every choice your protagonist has to make in your novel.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the choices in your novel. Are there consequences for making those choices? Does your protagonist always make the right one and never makes any mistakes? Brainstorm ways to make those choice have higher stakes and see how it could affect the novel.

Does your protagonist have to make the hard choices? What are they?

*Originally published February 2011. Last updated September 2023.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. I'd agree entirely. Fiction comes in many forms, and while the type we're talking about here we expect to be easy-reading, a kind of escapism, it does still need the frisson of potential failure to hold the attention.

    The subject makes me think of roleplaying, in which a player may well not want a character to die, but needs to believe they might to bring the game alive.

  2. Great post, Janice. I especially like the way you ended it with the sports analogy! Excellent points, all of them.

  3. Porky: Totally. If you don;t feel you're gong to die at any moment the game isn't as much fun.

    Juliette: Thanks :)

  4. This was an excellent explanation! It makes complete sense to me. Thank you so very much for posting this.

  5. Ah, that makes a lot of sense. And you're right, if the choice isn't going to have any ramifications, why is it there? I'll have to use that as a choice-test.

  6. That is such a good way of looking at it. Thanks a lot for putting it in this perspective.


  7. I swear, the more I read your posts about stakes, the more I 'get it'. You'll make a writer out of me yet.

    And I second Chicory, asking whether the choices a character makes has (negative) ramifications is a good stakes litmus test.
    - Sophia.

  8. Deborah: Most welcome :)

    Elizabeth: Happy it helped

    Chicory: It's a good test for almost everything in a novel, really. What does it do by being there?

    Misha: Anytime ;)

    Sophia: Good to hear! Nice to know the blog is helpful.

  9. Re: love triangles in particular, though I won't call anything out by name, this sort of explains why one romance fell flat to me. (Probably not the one you're thinking of!) When it was introduced, the female protag said she loved one boy, but was being forced together with another, and... there was never any real stakes attached to either choice, and as readers we never saw much of why she wanted one and not the other. So yeah, totally flat. (In fairness, it also wasn't the main plot of the book, but that can also be said of the Hunger Games, too, and you point out how well that was crafted!)

  10. I very much agree about not worry about the protagonist dying. I see it done so much and I think, really? There's still half a season left!

    Awesome blog! Thank you so much!

  11. Another post I'm going to have to store away for later use. Excellent.

  12. Becky: I have a bit of a love triangle planned for the next book, and I've been putting a lot of thought into how to make it interesting. Ideally, I want readers to flip back and forth over which is the better choice same as my protag :)

    Mallory: That's one of my TV pet peeves. That's one of the things I like about Gray's Anatomy. They kill off and get rid of characters just enough that you worry when a favorite is in trouble.

    Paul: Thanks!

  13. You're so quotable: choices that don't cause trouble are wasted opportunities.

  14. Thanks! I'm always taping "things to remember" type quotes on my monitor so I guess I've started thinking in those terms now.

  15. First of all I want to just say that I stumbled across one of your posts when searching for how to choose a title. That was four hours ago, but I'm still here because the little links to other articles that you sprinkle everywhere are too tempting to resist! So I may never leave my desk again or write another word but you know. (The hardest part is the posts all get me so fired up about writing, but part of me would still rather click that next intriguing link, and that part wins!)

    Anyway, I'm wondering if anyone can help me on this. I'm writing a historical fiction right now, and one of the sub-plots is sort of a love triangle I guess you would call it, except that Miles, my protagonist, is only in love with Honora (better known as Honey May) and is oblivious to the fact that Bridie (short for Bridget, and my other viewpoint character) loves him, despite how many times she helps pull him out of the constant messes he gets himself into. In fact, he pretty much doesn't even think of her as a girl, just a buddy. So for him there isn't a choice to be made, really. But there are stakes because he is going to end up really, really hurting Bridie later on (as usual, not even realising that his actions affect others) and since he relies on her so much, you can see where there would be ramifications.

    My problem is, I don't think Bridie would stop helping him or plot revenge or whatever. She loves him so much that in many ways she is content to just be his friend and help him as much as she can. I know that's bad for the story, but it's who she is.

    What should be done, or should something be done? Again, this is a subplot, and the bit where he actually crushes her heart to pieces is near the end of the book, where it's starting to dawn on him that his actions (surprise, surprise!) have an effect on people's feelings. Any advice would be good. (Sorry if this was all confusing, trouble is I hardly know what exactly it is that I'm asking.)

    1. Welcome! Good to have you :) Glad you've found so much helpful info.

      If that's how Birdie would act, let her act that way. It's her choice to love him even if he never acknowledges it, and she's suffer the consequences of that (and "suffer" can be many things). If crushing her helps him grow as a character, then that's her role. Maybe her unconditional love is what finally helps him, and the sad thing is he still crushes her, even as he learns from her.

      He might not have a choice to make regarding her, but he'll have other choices to make about her. Such as he'll chose to act in a way that hurts her, even if he doesn't see it. She's his friend, and his choices likely reflect that, even though she feels differently about him.

      If readers see Birdie's POV, then they'll know how she feels. So when Miles does things to hurt her, they'll likely feel her pain. So his choice will matter even if he has no idea how they affect her.

      Does that make sense?

    2. Thank you so much for your advice! Yes, it makes a lot of sense, and I really appreciate your taking the time to help me out on this. I think I really understand my characters and story better having heard it expressed from someone else's viewpoint.


    3. Most welcome :) I'm always happy to help, even if it sometimes takes me a little time to reply.