Your Choices Reveal Your Characters
by Jason Black
Unless youíre 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 wonít stick with
the story. Both qualities are strongly tied to the choices those
For example, have you ever
encountered a novel where the good guy gets the drop on the bad guy,
and yet doesnít do a really obvious thing that would put an end to
the bad guyís villainy? If you havenít, Iíll wager youíre not
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 itís too soon for the book to be over. They
exist to develop the conflict and heighten the drama. Sadly, itís
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
The scene has tension and
drama, but obviously the writer canít 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 doesnít 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 bookís central
villain, a serial killer; the woman whose purse was snatched turns
up dead in her apartment with her pilfered driverís license
displayed prominently on her forehead.
Not so fast. This only
trades the writerís immediate plot problem for something much worse:
a characterization problem. Thatís a lousy trade. It's a quick-fix
that leaves readers muttering, ďdraw your gun, you idiot.Ē 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.
Itís not just cops and
robbers. This same basic issue applies to any kind of conflict,
even a simple loversí spat. Still, itís not wrong to create an
early confrontation like this in your novel. So what are you to do?
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
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 thingóas long
as itís a really good reason. Connecting the heroís failure to a
personal flaw which is central to your heroís character arc can be
extremely effective: Maybe itís 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 doesnít dare draw his weapon because he
hasnít had a drink in over 24 hours and his hands are shaking too
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.
Donít do that to your
characters. Youíre 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?
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
Every choice our
hypothetical cop makes reveals his character, beyond whether heís
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 charactersí choices reveal
about them. Ask yourself, is that what you want to reveal or are the
charactersí actions speaking louder than the writerís 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