A Matter of Choice

Our characters are constantly making choices, from answering the call to action to something as innocuous as deciding what to eat for breakfast. It may not always seem that way from where we sit in the author’s chair, given the illusion of control we have over our stories, but our characters should be facing choices, even if we don’t always dwell on them.

Choices could be binary (between options A or B) or multiple (options A, B, C…X). They could be mutually exclusive (if A is chosen, B is no longer possible) or not (if A is chosen, B is still a possibility).

But I want to focus on the types of choices characters face, and the associated repercussions the decisions can have.

Explicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make and have acknowledged it (to themselves or others) in some way. They are also aware of the repercussions of their decision (stakes).

For example, your hero knows if he chooses to fight the bad guy, there’s a chance he could win and save the girl. If he doesn’t fight, the bad guy wins. Those are explicit outcomes.

Explicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make but they are uncertain as to what impact their choice will have on themselves and others.

Think of your traditional call to action. A young man or woman is told they need to undergo training to harness their latent powers/magic/intellect/abilities (think college or grad school for contemporary purposes). There’s an obvious choice here, to train or not, but the stakes here are less certain. Success is not a guarantee if they undergo training. Maybe there are other paths to success that don’t include training. These are vague outcomes.

Now, a call to action moment could certainly have explicit stakes (think “chosen one” tropes), but I personally feel there needs to be some uncertainties, some vagueness to the choice, for it to be dramatically satisfying.

Implicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is where your character is unaware/unconscious of the fact that there is a choice to be made. You’re probably thinking: How can that be? Well, let’s start with the fact that we make hundreds upon hundreds of choices everyday (think Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). Small ones, ones we don’t even realize we’re making. Now think of the way you were raised, beliefs or traditions your parents or caregivers passed on to you that you never had reason to question. Yes, assumptions, ignorance, and to some extent notions of culture and privilege all come into play here. Now you can start to see how there may have been a choice to be made, but your character was unaware of making it or ignorant of other alternatives.

For example, your character grew up as an only child, and therefore is used to doing things autonomously and has what is perceived by others as selfish tendencies. Let’s say they monopolize a conversation at school (an implicit choice since they don’t have to compete for their parent’s attention at home, and that behavior unwittingly carries over into other settings) and in doing so, they cut off someone else who tries to speak, pissing that person off (explicit outcome).

Implicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is where a character is unaware or unconscious of the fact they have a choice to make, and the ramifications of that choice are not immediately apparent.

Let’s return to the college example. Maybe your character is descended from a long line of blue-collar workers. This means they’ve lived their whole life to the cycle of the nearby plant/mill/factory. Their parents worked there, their grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. As soon as they turn 16, they start picking up weekend shifts or work there during the summer.

When it comes time to graduate high school, they just assume they’re going to work at the plant too (implicit choice), never considering the option they could go to college or join the military or spend a year working for Americore. The ramifications of this choice are unknown. Maybe this person will rise through the ranks and manage the plant one day. Maybe the plant will shut down, and it’s harder for the character to translate their skills into another trade or go back to school. Maybe they’re stuck on the ground floor for the rest of their life. These are all uncertain outcomes, based on a implicit choice.

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For all of these different types of choices, there’s a lot you can play with. Your character’s deliberations leading up to a pivotal choice could be a dramatic, angst-ridden ride. The impact their choice has on other characters and the plot of your story could also be as big as you can make it, both positive and negative.

But don’t forget about the quiet choices, the ones that add texture and nuance to your characters. Consider showing how your characters learn from the choices they make, and the differences in how a lesson learned from an implicit or explicit choices will affect them.

Happy writing!
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4 thoughts on “A Matter of Choice

  1. Lovely post — and this is an unusual topic. We talk a lot about stakes and goals and motivations, but we rarely distinguish them in terms of the character's cognizance. I'll have to go back and put some thought into this.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Martina

  2. Excellent post. It is what the character learns from making their choices that really makes them memorable. Great breakdown of the stakes/choice relationship!

    Angela ackerman

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