I believe choice may be the most important aspect of good storytelling. Choice is what grants significance and meaning to the events of the story, and its characters. If a character does not choose, or if their choices have no bearing on the outcome of the story, the character’s choices cease to matter.
For example, imagine a character was confronted with 3 doors (Door #1, Door #2, and Door #3). The character chooses Door #3, only to find that behind Door #3 is another Door #1. Next they try Door #2, only to find another Door #1. The story/villain has presented the illusion of a choice, but the truth is all choices lead to the same outcome.
This doesn’t add to the story, or developing the character; it just wastes time.
Consider another example, the Star Trek franchise, containing numerous distinct iterations, but in almost every case the story focuses on the bridge crew. Why? Because within that narrative, all of the interesting decisions are made by high ranking officials. The vast majority of the crew simply “follow orders”, applying technical skills in support of the decisions made by the few who lead.
A subordinate can be a main character, if it’s established that they are choosing to obey. The distinction lies in whether a character simply “follows instructions”, or pauses to consider their options. If the story demonstrates that the character is willing to disobey, and actively considers doing so, then even “following orders” can be an engaging choice.
Another important aspect of choice is accountability. A character who demonstrates remorse, regret, guilt, and/or contrition about past deeds is also taking ownership of their actions. In the process of regretting or apologizing, they are admitting that they had a choice, that they could have “done something else”.
If a character simply does as they are told, they might as well be a pen, car, or other “device”.
Choice, and the positive/negative consequences of those choices, exemplifies the meaning of the story, and audiences crave meaning.
There’s a wonderful episode of Star Trek Next Generation entitled “Elementary, Dear Data” (spoilers to follow).
When Data manages to effortlessly overcome the challenges of a Sherlock Holmes simulation, his friends challenge him by commanding the computer to create a character capable of defeating Data. Eventually it’s revealed that the only way for a holographic character to challenge Data would be to grant them sentience.
Similarly I would argue that a protagonist without agency, without the will to think and act independently, cannot oppose a villain who does have agency.
Consider Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels. Throughout much of the prequel trilogy, Palpatine is the only one proactively choosing his actions. Everyone else is reacting to Palpatine’s actions, or passively waiting for additional information.
The few times that characters do (or may) stray from his script, nothing is actually changed by their choices. Phantom Menace still sees him elected, Attack of the Clones still justifies an army under his command (which he shares with the Senate), and Revenge of the Sith completes his plan by crippling the Jedi and further consolidating his power. No other character manages to prevent or change Palpatine’s plan.
By thinking for themselves and making their own decisions, characters perpetuate the necessary belief in the story’s uncertain future. Once audiences know the plan for the remainder of the story, the only merits lie in whether or not things will go according to plan, and any remaining unresolved questions in regards to “how” the characters will execute the plan.
In any story there are a few central questions that represent the foundation of audience interest:
1. What is going to happen? (narrative outcomes)
2. How will these outcomes affect the characters? (consequences)
3. What meaning is expressed through the plot outcomes and character consequences?
Once audiences know the answers to the first two questions, they can answer the third on their own.
It’s the choices characters make, and the consequences of those choices, which create meaning for the story. If the outcome lacks uncertainty, then all relevant choices have been made, and the meaning is already evident. At that point, there’s no reason for audiences to keep reading or watching. They already know the answers to all the relevant questions:
It’s only when the outcome is uncertain, and characters might be required to make new choices, that the meaning is uncertain, and audiences have a reason to continue.
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