I’ve been perusing YouTube a lot this week, gathering research material for the book I’m currently writing. As I watch the videos, I’ve noticed a lot of thumbnails along the right side of my screen that claim they can determine my personality by the colors or pictures I choose out of a lineup.
I don’t know about the validity of those tests, but I do know that character is revealed through the choices we make. That goes for living, breathing people as well as for characters in a story.
Shape shifters are real
Our choices reveal who we are, and the consequences of those choices shape us into who we are becoming. The great thing about this is we have a choice.
We may consider some options not worth considering or even impossible to consider, making it appear that we don’t have a choice, and that also says something about our character.
The heart of the story is conflict
As a writer, I create a world where readers can experience my characters making choices, but the types of choices are important. Readers don’t care whether my character chooses peanut butter and jelly or tuna for lunch. They don’t give a fig whether my character decides on a blue shirt or a yellow one.
The choices that matter are based on conflict. Conflict is the heart of the story. It’s what pumps the life blood to the various arms and legs of the story, keeping them moving.
In terms of a good story, there are two types of critical choices, and both stem from conflict.
The best bad choice
The BBC isn’t just a British Broadcasting Corporation. The initials (to me, anyway) also stand for the Best Bad Choice. This is when you’re faced with a number of options, none of them good.
Example: You are trapped on the second story of a burning building. You manage to get a window open, but it looks like a nasty jump. No sirens, no firetrucks yet in sight, and all other exits are blocked by fire.
You could (A) jump out the window and likely sustain a serious injury (B) try to fight your way through the fire and down the stairs, probably getting badly burned or killed (C) stay where you are and hope help arrives soon.
This is the sort of choice that engages readers and makes a story matter. But there’s another kind that’s just as compelling.
This array of choices occurs when each option would be good for one party and bad for a significant other party. Or when the choice would be beneficial for a character in one way, but equally detrimental in another way.
Example: You get offered that dream job you always wanted, but it’s in London, and you live in Los Angeles, where your spouse enjoys his/her own dream job and the kids love their friends and school.
You can (A) seize the marvelous opportunity in London and move the whole family, meaning the rest of your family will suffer and sacrifice for your good (B) Pass up the job offer and hope that it will come around again in a time and place that will work or (C) Leave your spouse and children in LA and make the move to London, splitting up the family.
Traveling the rocky road
Choices like, “Hmmm, should I grab that baby’s pacifier and grind it underfoot, or should I hold the door open for this woman carrying a double armload of packages?” don’t really do much for building character. The choice is easy and obvious. It’s the tough, sometimes impossible, choices that call upon us to reach down deep and see what we’re really made of.
This dynamic is one of the things I consider a lot when writing my stories. Think about how these types of choices affect you and the life you lead. After all, you’re writing a story too.
What do you think? Take a look at your favorite books and movies and see how the impact comes from the characters facing difficult decisions. Note how their choices illuminate and develop their character. Share your observations with us in the comments section.
And thanks for reading!