Our characters are ever facing decisions. It is the choices they make that map the course of our novels. (Books that fail to create character driven stories generally feel like a long string of “and then this happened”s. Not ideal.)
Sometimes the correct choice is clear cut—one option is bad, the other good. These scenarios aren’t terribly interesting. If our character chooses correctly then, well, duh. The obviousness steals our protagonist’s power. If they choose the wrong option, the reader is frustrated by the character’s either a.) complete idiocy, or b.) illogical evilness. For example: “Oh, there’s a murderer abouts? I’m gonna look for the cat.” Or “Danger is afoot? Well, I, as a strong female lead, obviously need to run off on my own, eschew help, and get captured.” Or “I’m evil now? Well, first things first, better kill a room full of younglings.”
The more interesting situation is when characters have to make a difficult decision because none of the options are perfect. Or even better, when all of the options are terrible. These moments can define a character. Who are they and what will they do in the midst of a shit storm? How do they play that lousy hand?
The problem is, so stinking often, these problems are resolved by an outside force. The author swoops in with some kind of situational shift that renders the decision moot. It happens so often that we, the consumers of entertainment, can barely take the terrible decision seriously because we know it isn’t really going to matter.
We come to a familiar crux and can’t even summon real concern:
“Stop or I’ll shoot!” And miss, even though you’re standing RIGHT THERE.
“They both love me, but I have to break one of their hearts.” Don’t worry, that other guy will find a different love interest by the end of the book.
“I have to sacrifice myself or many people will die.” Deep breath, buddy, you’ll inexplicably survive.
Not only does this pervasive tendency steal readerly apprehension, it also takes away our characters’ agency. We, as the reader, know that their choice won’t ultimately matter. Some outside force is going fix everything.
This is why I’ve never liked the play Measure for Measure (Shakespeare was so much more fun when he was writing for Elizabeth than when he was writing for James). The female lead is faced with this rather unpleasant decision: have sex with this horrible guy and give up your virginity out of wedlock, or let your brother be executed. What happens? She refuses to compromise her innocence and, just in time, the Duke reveals himself and saves the brother from execution.
Here’s the thing, I’m supposed to think that Isabella made the right decision just because she got lucky? I mean, what if the Duke hadn’t shown up and poor Claudio lost his head? How would we, the audience, feel about that? You saved your maidenhead and your brother dies, leaving his unborn child and betrothed in poverty and disgrace? The whole play rests on this decision and then the weight of it is denied us.
Or, take the first Spiderman movie. Who are you going to save, Spiderman, your girl or this bus of children? Both. Of course, he’s going to save both. That’s why the Dark Knight was so damn good. Characters are given horrible choices and, sometimes, they pay for the decision that they make.
I wish more stories did this. Not always, of course. It is realistic that sometimes outside forces come into play. But, once in a while, I’d like to see writers give their characters that agency. Let them choose and live with the consequences. Sometimes, when the character is stuck between that proverbial rock and hard place, please just allow them to get smushed.Fleur Treurniet