Choice plays a critical role in any story. Much of the meaning found in stories is derived from the choices a character makes, and their consequences. And yet, I feel that most characters make very few real choices over the course of their story. And I think that’s a good thing. Too many choices can overwhelm a person, just as too few can make for a boring story.
But then what is a choice? For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to define a choice as any time a character truly considers multiple options, weighing the cost/benefits of each, and then picks one. The key is that, for a moment, there is true uncertainty. The character might choose any possibility.
In contrast, many situations appear to be a choice, but the truth is that the character never really considered their options. Instead, the character acts according to their nature. This means their actions follow a pattern, revealing their character. Three of the most common ways in which a character “acts according to their nature” are reactions, routines, and adaptations.
A reaction is when a character experiences something and responds immediately. Most reactions are emotional responses to a sudden change. Examples include jumping when surprised, laughing at a joke, or replying to a statement made by someone else. In each instance something happens, and the character responds without hesitation. This means reactions are often very candid, sometimes even blunt.
For example, someone says “hello,” asks “how are you doing?” or says “Please hand me a pen.” In most cases, we respond immediately, without even thinking.
In general, any time a character responds to external stimuli almost immediately, or while thinking about/doing something else, those responses represent a reaction.
Routines are a series of actions that have been learned through repetition. Some are learned as a calm series of steps (i.e. taking a shower, making a simple meal, driving a car), others are triggered by specific stimuli (i.e. combat training). One way to recognize a routine is the fact that the character may not consciously recognize that they are performing the action.
For example, imagine someone drives to work Monday through Friday, taking the same route for months. Then, on a random Saturday, they leave for the day, but accidentally drive to work, instead of their actual destination.
Last is adaptation. Adaptation is when something unexpected forces the character to deviate from their routine. The character is consciously aware of the situation, they’re actively thinking about it, but they’re still not making a choice, because they’re not considering multiple possibilities. Instead, they’re analyzing information so that they can determine the one correct response to the situation.
For example, a driver needs to make a left turn, but there’s a car coming the other way. The distance between the two cars, and the speed of the oncoming car will determine whether the driver turns or waits for the oncoming car to pass, but the answer is defined by circumstance. If the oncoming car is going 25 miles per hour, and is a quarter mile away, the driver will consistently make the turn. If the oncoming car is going 35 miles per hour, and is only 20 feet away, the driver will consistently wait.
The distinction between following one’s nature and making a choice is almost entirely internal, dependent upon whether or not the character actively considered their options. In writing, one way to understand a story is to identify and recognize where each character is making a choice. Choices represent the major points which define a character’s journey. In many cases a weak story is rooted in the absence of interesting and difficult choices. The more difficult the choice, the greater the tension.
Identifying the major choices each character makes, and mapping out the journey to and between them, is a strong way to analyze a story, understanding how it works, or why it doesn’t.
Let’s look at two examples from literature, Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and Frodo Baggins in Fellowship of the Ring (spoiler warning).
Ned Stark in Game of Thrones
At the beginning of the story, Ned Stark is living comfortably in his home of Winterfell. He manages his land, his people, and his family, offering training, guidance, and occasionally enforcing the law. When the King comes to see him, and asks him to become the Hand of the King, he refuses, until he learns of a secret plot that threatens the King, as well as his allies.
This represents Ned’s first real choice, whether or not to become Hand, though one could argue that both times, Ned believed there was only 1 correct answer.
As Hand, Ned quietly investigates the plot against the King (and his allies), while also exercising his authority as Hand, relying on his own moral compass to guide him. In the background he struggles with his younger daughter, Arya, who wishes to learn swordplay. Eventually he relents and hires an instructor for her.
Ned chose to become Hand so that he could investigate the plot against the King. His investigation is a natural extension of that original choice. Ned is adapting to the changing circumstances surrounding his goal.
Similarly, since Ned is following his moral compass, which has already been developed, he is not making a choice. He already decided what is right and wrong. Now he is simply following through with that choice.
When Ned’s moral decisions are overruled, he resigns as Hand. Later, he receives word of what his wife has done, and declares she acted on his authority. A fight breaks out. In the aftermath, the King asks him to resume his role as Hand, warning Ned that if he refuses the King will choose Jamie Lannister, someone far less honorable.
Ned continues to follow his moral compass, opposing immoral acts as best he can, protecting his wife, and ensuring the corrupt do not amass more power.
One might think that resuming his role as Hand represents a choice, but I believe the key to Ned’s change is the change in circumstances. If Ned knew, from the beginning, that Jaime Lannister would become Hand, I don’t think he would have resigned.
Ned learns part of the truth, and confronts Cersei Lannister. He warns her to flee or face the consequences. Instead she marshals her forces and confronts Ned, defeating him. Imprisoned, Ned initially refuses to cooperate, until they threaten his family.
Throughout this conflict Ned is approached by multiple individuals, each with their own suggestions for how he should handle the situation, but he rejects all of them on moral grounds. He remains committed to doing the right thing as he perceives it.
Ned only makes three real choices:
- 1. Become Hand, in an effort to unravel the plot.
- Follow his own moral code, and uphold the law (in that order).
- Support his daughter, Arya, in her study of swordplay (despite social conventions).
Most of Ned’s actions are really just an extension of these choices. When Ned is confronted with a problem or challenge, he doesn’t ask himself “What are my options?” Instead he asks “How can I best continue to pursue my goals,” and it’s the fact that he continues to pursue the same goal(s) that qualify most of his actions as adaptations, rather than new choices.
Ned’s journey represents the moral choice. He does what he believes is right, refusing to compromise unless it puts innocents in harm’s way. How his choices are rewarded demonstrate one of the fundamental themes of Game of Thrones, that morality and “what is right” are dubious prospects at best, and that doing the right thing offers no protection.
Frodo Baggins in Fellowship of the Ring
At the beginning of the story, Frodo is a young and innocent character. In the aftermath of his uncle’s party, and departure, he inherits a magical ring, which is soon revealed to be very dangerous. Evil beings seek it, and if they secure it, the harm they could do will be magnified. Frodo tries to offer the ring to Gandalf, but when he explains why he can’t accept it, Frodo realizes he must head to the town of Bree, and ultimately reach Rivendell, a stronghold of good.
Frodo initially reacts to the danger of the ring by turning to the most powerful being he knows, Gandalf. But when that option is ruled out, he accepts his role as ring bearer.
During his journey, Frodo gathers 3 friends (Sam, Merry, Pippin), hides from ringwraiths, encounters ghosts, and meets a powerful being by the name of Tom Bombadil.
Throughout this section of the journey, Frodo is reacting and adapting to changing circumstances, but he is still committed to his goal.
When they arrive at Bree, the group find that Gandalf is missing, and a strange man by the name of Strider shows a keen interest in them. At first they suspect him, but ultimately choose to trust him. With his help they evade another attack by ringwraiths.
Frodo chooses to trust Strider.
Following Strider into the wild, they face the ringwraiths again, and Frodo is wounded. In his weakened state, he struggles to hold on. Others get him to Rivendell, where he is healed.
Many others gather, and a council is convened to fully outline the issue of the ring, and decide what to do. Ultimately it’s made clear that the only option is to try to destroy the ring, though how remains to be determined. Frodo offers to once again be the ring bearer.
This marks Frodo’s third choice. I call it a choice because originally he thought the goal was to get the ring to Rivendell. It’s only now that he realizes there is still more to do, and chooses to continue in his role.
The fellowship set out, and for a time all seems well, but when they try to cross over a mountain they find the weather too strong, so they grudgingly choose to go through the mines of Moria.
This represents the fourth big choice. Granted, it’s a choice motivated by desperation, and dwindling options, but they do consider the alternatives.
While in the mines they struggle to navigate, and eventually face assorted enemies, including a legendary monster. Those that make it through continue on to Lothlorien, a stronghold of the elves. While there, Frodo meets privately with Galadriel. He chooses to look into a magical mirror, and sees many visions. He also chooses to offer Galadriel the ring. She is tempted, but says no.
Frodo chooses to look into the mirror and he chooses to offer Galadriel the ring.
The group continue on their journey, until they face a critical choice. The group’s members have diverse goals, and must decide how to proceed. When pressed, Frodo chooses to continue on to Mordor, but opts to depart alone, to spare his friends the danger. Sam confronts Frodo and insists on going with him. Frodo relents and the two depart.
Frodo chooses to continue to Mordor alone. Later Sam insists on coming with him, and
Frodo reluctantly agrees.
Across the entire story, Frodo makes eight decisions:\
- He chooses to be the ring bearer.
- Frodo chooses to trust Strider.
- Frodo chooses to become ring bearer again.
- Frodo/the group choose to go through the mines of Moria.
- Frodo chooses to look into the mirror.
- Frodo offers the ring to Galadriel.
- Frodo chooses to continue alone.
- Frodo allows Sam to accompany him.
Granted, there are other characters making important decisions, but within Frodo’s story, these are the significant moments. He reluctantly accepts the burden of responsibility, humbly offers it to those who appear to be wiser than he is, and he tries to avoid burdening others. This fits with the overarching themes of the story, which value humility and encourage those with power to use it sparingly. Those who attempt to force their will upon others are inevitably punished, while those who offer and sacrifice willingly are consistently rewarded.
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