Your Choices Reveal Your Characters
by Jason Black
Unless you’re writing Forrest Gump fan fiction, you probably want the characters in your novels to be both believable and smart. If either quality is lacking in your heroes or your villains, readers won’t stick with the story. Both qualities are strongly tied to the choices those characters make.
For example, have you ever encountered a novel where the good guy gets the drop on the bad guy, and yet doesn’t do a really obvious thing that would put an end to the bad guy’s villainy? If you haven’t, I’ll wager you’re not reading enough.
How do such scenes make you feel about those characters? They always make me feel like the characters are idiots, which makes me feel gypped for having spent my money on a piece of ineffective storytelling. I hate that.
Writers let this happen because these early confrontation scenes come somewhere in the first or second act, when it’s too soon for the book to be over. They exist to develop the conflict and heighten the drama. Sadly, it’s easy for these scenes to go horribly wrong.
For example, take this confrontation: The hero is a cop who interrupts a purse snatcher. He chases the thief for several blocks before cornering him in a back alley.
The scene has tension and drama, but obviously the writer can’t let the cop win or all subsequent drama would be gone. The book would be over. This leaves the writer with a problem: how to get the thief out of hot water so the cop can pursue him into the second act? All too often, inexperienced writers simply have the hero fail to do the obvious thing in order to let the bad guy escape:
The cop stares the thief down, but doesn’t draw his gun. The thief throws the purse at him, hops over a chain link fence, and escapes.
Problem solved, right? Now the writer can reveal that the thief is the book’s central villain, a serial killer; the woman whose purse was snatched turns up dead in her apartment with her pilfered driver’s license displayed prominently on her forehead.
Not so fast. This only trades the writer’s immediate plot problem for something much worse: a characterization problem. That’s a lousy trade. It's a quick-fix that leaves readers muttering, “draw your gun, you idiot.” It destroys any belief that such a dope could ever have become a cop in the first place.
Believability and smarts, gone in an instant.
It’s not just cops and robbers. This same basic issue applies to any kind of conflict, even a simple lovers’ spat. Still, it’s not wrong to create an early confrontation like this in your novel. So what are you to do?
Anything, as long as it makes sense or has a plausible justification.
One option is to have the hero do something smart that ought to defeat the villain but fails because the villain does something unexpected. Maybe the cop does draw his gun, but the thief flashes a State Department ID and asserts diplomatic immunity. In one fell swoop you raise the tension, build up the cop as a competent, brave officer, and raise the danger associated with the villain by making him untouchable.
Another option is to create a reason why the hero fails to do the obvious thing—as long as it’s a really good reason. Connecting the hero’s failure to a personal flaw which is central to your hero’s character arc can be extremely effective: Maybe it’s not that the thief is legally un-prosecutable, but rather, our cop is an alcoholic who has been told he has to sober up or get off the force. Maybe in that back alley confrontation, he doesn’t dare draw his weapon because he hasn’t had a drink in over 24 hours and his hands are shaking too much.
An experienced writer will find a smart, believable, and character-driven reason for the villain to escape. An inexperienced writer will turn the hero into an idiot by applying a quick-fix to their immediate plot problem.
Don’t do that to your characters. You’re a writer, right? Writers are supposed to love their characters. Why would you do that to someone you love? Worse, why would you do that to a reader who has shelled out hard earned cash for your book?
Well-written novels continually present their main characters with obstacles to overcome in part because obstacles force the characters to act. They force characters to make choices, and in so doing, to show us something about themselves.
Every choice our hypothetical cop makes reveals his character, beyond whether he’s smart or an idiot. An overly easy choice can make him seem risk-averse. A difficult choice, especially one that requires a meaningful sacrifice, can be quite dramatic and does wonders for showing his resolve. The way he makes a choice matters too. Does he come to it immediately, or does he wrestle with other possible actions? Even when there is only one viable choice, if he finds it too quickly he may seem rash or reckless.
Choices are incredibly important to characterization. They are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal. I want you to think about your current project and ask what your characters’ choices reveal about them. Ask yourself, is that what you want to reveal or are the characters’ actions speaking louder than the writer’s words?
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com