Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Tough Luck: Let Your Characters Make Tough Choices

By Laura Lascarso, @lauralascarso 

Part of the How They Do It Series

Please help me welcome Laura Lascarso to the lecture hall today to chat with us about the value of giving your characters tough choices to make. Not only does this create more interesting characters, but stronger stories as well. (And let's face it, it's also just plain fun!)

Laura Lascarso’s debut novel COUNTING BACKWARDS won the 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for Young Adult Literature. Her second YA novel, ANSWER ME, is currently out on submission to editors.

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Giveaway! Plus, one lucky commenter chosen at random can win their very own signed copy of COUNTING BACKWARDS. Winner chosen on June 10.  

Take it away Laura...

Characters, like people, are defined by the choices they make and the actions they take. That’s why,in fiction, it’s important to give your characters tough decisions and real motivations for action. There also has to be dire consequences for whichever course of action a character chooses. This keeps the tension in your story high and the plot moving forward.

As an example, stealing a car is morally wrong as well as a criminal offense. But what if our hero—we’ll call her Jane—needs to transport her mortally wounded best friend to the hospital and the only way to get there is by stealing a car? That makes the crime more justifiable.

Now, it would be easy if there were a car just sitting there with the keys still in the ignition—a victimless crime. Easy and a bit too convenient. So, let’s up the stakes.

Jane and her mortally wounded best friend are on a desolate road in the middle of the night in unfriendly surroundings with no cell phone reception. Jane has tried flagging down two vehicles for help already, but neither stopped and she’s running out of time. Jane risks her life by dashing out to the middle of the road and forcing a car to stop. The driver, an angry man who is twice her size, yells at her to get out of the way and threatens her with bodily harm. But Jane is set on saving her friend’s life, so she instead starts denting the hood of the man’s car with her fist in order to lure him out of the driver’s seat. Jane then knocks him in the gut with a tire iron—just hard enough to stun him—so that she can get her friend and herself into the car and on their way to the hospital.

This series of choices and actions reveals a lot about Jane’s character—she’s a quick-thinker, she’s brave and a little desperate, she’s willing to harm a stranger, and she will readily sacrifice her own safety to save her best friend. Jane is perceived as a hero. The reader is invested in her struggle. With regard to her crime, the end justifies the means.

Now, to turn this example around, let’s say Jane and her best friend are perfectly healthy and all they really want is to go to a party at their friend Pete’s house who lives on the other side of town and in order to do so, they need a ride there. In this context, if Jane stopped traffic, assaulted the driver and stole a car, she’s no longer a hero, but a sociopath, which may not be the kind of character we’re trying to reveal. That’s why it’s important that in addition to hard decisions, our character’s actions match the stakes of the situation.

If we approach our story as a series of hard decisions for our main character and we create obstacles for our characters to overcome, we have a solid foundation for a compelling story wrought with tension. We’re also revealing character by showing, not telling, and engaging the reader in our characters’ struggles.

This is not to say that our characters must always make the “right” decisions, because characters also reveal themselves through “wrong” decisions. And if it’s done well, a wrong decision can elicit compassion and sympathy from the reader.

As another example, in COUNTING BACKWARDS, Taylor’s mother is an alcoholic. Even though Taylor’s home life is unstable and unhealthy, Taylor chooses to stay with her mother over her father because from her perspective, someone has to take care of her mother. We, as readers, know she is making the “wrong” decision, that by staying with her mother, Taylor is both sacrificing her own well being as well as enabling her mother’s alcoholism.

But this decision also reveals that Taylor is a compassionate person and a caretaker, whose love for her mother has blinded her to the truth of her situation. In revealing Taylor’s weakness we’re able to see her growth as a character throughout the novel and by the end of the story, when faced with the same decision, her choice is entirely different.

When writing (or revising), look for opportunities to let your characters make tough choices. Give those decisions dire consequences and let those actions not only reveal your character, but also change the course of the story. Your fiction will be stronger and your readers’ level of engagement will be higher, which makes for a more satisfying and compelling read.

About Counting Backwards

When troubled Taylor Truwell is caught with a stolen car and lands in court for resisting arrest, her father convinces the judge of an alternative to punishment: treatment in a juvenile psychiatric correctional facility. Sunny Meadows is anything but the easy way out, and Taylor has to fight hard just to hold on to her sanity as she battles her parents, her therapist, and vicious fellow patients. But even as Taylor struggles to hold on to her stubborn former self, she finds herself relenting as she lets in two unlikely friends--Margo, a former child star and arsonist, and AJ, a mysterious boy who doesn’t speak. In this striking debut, Laura Lascarso weaves together a powerful story of anger and self-destruction, hope and love.

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. Great post, choices and motivation are vital to a good story. It is something I struggle with because I feel I have a hard time making it natural and not forced.

  2. This is great advice! I am currently working on adding this kind of conflict to my WIP. I will be even more conscious of it now. Thanks!

  3. Awesome post, Laura! Always good to be reminded that a character's actions need to match the stakes of the situation you throw them into. I also love seeing character development through a wrong decision being made, so I might try to work that into my current WIP if it fits. Thanks for the advice.

  4. Thanks for the good advice Lauren. Actions speak louder than words has been and is always the truth. Good luck with the book!

  5. Excellent examples of how a character's motivations can change readers' perceptions. A "good" character can do a "bad" thing and still maintain reader empathy IF the character's motivations look good.

    This idea has started me thinking about "bad" characters and THEIR actions/motivations. If readers already perceive a character as "bad", and that character seems to be doing a "good" thing, I can see this building tension. Is the character up to something? Is the character perhaps not as "bad" as we thought? Which is it?

    Thanks for expanding my thinking on this vital subject. :)

  6. Conflict always keeps the story going. If there's no conflict, it reads like a newsletter to me. What's the point, right? Give me drama even in the funniest of comedies.