5 Ways to Limit Your Character's Options

5 Ways to Limit Your Character’s Options – and Make Your Story Better

This post is by Mooderino.

Given a predicament, a character in a story will have a number of options on how to proceed. As in real life, some of those options will be more sensible than others. Doing the sensible thing saves a lot of grief and trouble, which is why it is absolutely no good for fiction writers.

To prevent the story ending on page two, it helps if the character doesn’t just phone the police at the first sign of trouble or leave the haunted house and live somewhere else.

But you can’t just ignore the obvious route for reasons of convenience. And while it’s entirely plausible that a character was in shock, he panicked, or he made a bad call, this can lock the character into a particular type of persona—he’s dumb and he handles things badly—which is fine if that’s how he’s supposed to come across.

Alternatively, you can use the character’s environment to remove a number of options without having to provide extensive setups or long-winded explanations.

1. Opponents Who Play Dirty

An antagonist obviously wants the main character (MC) to fail, but if instead of just waiting around, he actively gets in the MC’s way, his machinations can leave fewer options for the MC to choose from.

This can come in the form of physical confrontation, but it can also be in the form of spreading lies or hiding the things the MC needs. It’s all very well having an honorable rival who tries to win fair and square, but a guy who takes the battery out of your phone can make for a real challenge.

The MC can’t take the easy way out if someone is running around blocking off exits.

2. Locked Doors and High Walls

This can be a literal locked door, like on a prison cell, but it can also be any barrier that prevents your character from getting what he needs or walking away from an unpleasant situation.

Not only is it hard to get away from a vampire on a transatlantic flight, there aren’t many places to find holy water.

The setting is one of the easiest things to change in a story. It may seem like the scene has to happen in the place it was first envisioned, but there’s usually no reason it can’t be moved to somewhere that has more of an impact on proceedings.

Using the physical surroundings also helps bring them to the readers’ notice, making the story feel more immersive without being too obvious about it.

3. Ticking Clocks

While a race against time will raise tension and pace, it also prevents the MC from doing things that will slow him down or divert him.

It doesn’t have to be something as extreme as a bomb about to go off. It can be any appointment or deadline. As soon as you establish a time limit, it will be obvious the MC can’t do certain things.

Even if it’s just needing to get home to watch the season finale of Mad Men, the character’s refusal to take the sensible route, if it’s going to take up more time, will require little or no explanation.

4. Family Values

People belong to social groups, whether it’s family, marriage, religion, or the Boy Scouts. These groups have rules and expectations that can be extremely useful when it comes to limiting a character’s options.

Shame, embarrassment, and jealousy are all easily aroused in these sorts of groups and provide excellent motivation for doing inadvisable things.

5. Job Rules

Like social groups, jobs come with lines you can’t cross—unless you want to risk being booted out. And not only will you lose the emotional bonds you’ve formed, you will also lose a way to earn money.

This can be a very powerful motivator for toeing the line. A cop doesn’t snitch on a fellow cop, a lawyer doesn’t breach confidentiality, someone working for Coke doesn’t date someone working for Pepsi (I’m assuming).  The threat of unpleasant consequences can drive a character to take the riskier option.

In most cases, characters will have ready-made restrictions already in place, and it will only require a slight shift in focus to work them into the story. Using them to limit options, rather than making it an arbitrary choice to not clear up a misunderstanding with a simple phone call, will stop readers questioning motivations. In most cases, the added pressure will raise tension and make for a more dramatic narrative overall.

About the Author: Mooderino lives in England where the summers are wet and getting wetter, so it is the perfect place to stay indoors and noodle about with story ideas. In an attempt to improve his own writing and help others with theirs, he posts on the craft of writing every Monday and Thursday at Moody Writing and on Tumblr. Mooderino can be found on Twitter, where he will gladly follow and tweet with anyone interested in writing fiction, or anyone who just wants to have a moan about how blooming hard it is to be happy with what you’ve written.

Tell me your opinion: What have you done to limit your main characters options?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I definitely incorporated 1, 2 and 3 into my last manuscript. I’ve read multiple times that readers become bored when everything keeps working out for a book’s characters. I try to throw them as many obstacles as I can.

  2. It doesn’t even have to be an antagonist who blocks the way. Any character could do it, even by accident.
    Time is the one I use most often.

  3. Great examples. I wouldn’t have thought to add the family one, but very good point. Plus, the great thing about all these is that they happen all the time in real life, so it’s easy for a reader to buy the excuse for not doing the obvious.

  4. Thanks for sharing a great post today, Mood!

  5. Thanks for having me, Katie. Big fan of the site, so a pleasure to be posting here.

    @Vicki – writers often want things to turn out well for their characters but readers aren’t quite so generous.

    @Alex – the inadvertent block can be the most cruel (in life, too).

    @Laura – a little structuring and the reasons can require no explanation at all, it just makes sense.

  6. I’ve used time, locked doors, family and opponents who play dirty. Lately I’m debuting in using job rules.

  7. You mention the antagonist spreading lies to give the MC a hard time. In my WIP, set in the year 2084, the antagonist uses reality-altering technology to persuade others to believe the MC did things she didn’t do in reality.

  8. Good post and good suggestions. Setting is the obstacle I’m working with in my latest WIP.

  9. This is an excellent post; thanks to the both of you for bringing it to us! For my WIP, #4 is the biggest conflict generator, and as a result, #1 fits in perfectly.

  10. @al diaz – you seem to have it pretty much covered. Let me know if you come up with any more.

    @trevor – people in the future are apparently very sneaky.

    @Jan – thanks.

    @Nicolia – glad you found it useful.

  11. NoahDavid Lein says

    Thanks for sharing, Mooderino! This can be a factor that makes some stories feel “forced” – the options limiting the MC aren’t believable, rigid, or interesting. I get to feeling this way a lot at the movies, thanks to Hollywoods de-valuing of original and stimulating stories.

  12. Finding barriers was a problem for me when I began to write my novel. Wish I’d had your list then, Mooderino, Now I’ve used several of these, with family and society and job being the major ones. I’ll keep your list close by to spur my thinking. Thanks!

  13. I love the ticking clock and the underhanded opponent. Those two story elements make me turn the pages when I’m reading someone else’s book, so I use them in mine.

    Thanks for the link here, Mooderino. I loved reading your guest post.

  14. What a great post. I follow Moody on his writing blog to brush up on tips like these.

  15. @Noah – movies and tv shows definitely abuse this element, using actors to bundle past the seemingly inconceivable.

    @Carol – you’re very welcome.

    @Lee – thanks.

    @Mike – nice of you to say.

  16. Done all of those several times. In SF orbital mechanics makes for very good ticking clocks, “According to the onboard computer we’re going to smash into the sun in 10 mins, and all the engines are shot” is fairly final. There are a few cases where I’ve done several at once, such as the episode where the villain handcuffs FMC to a nuclear reactor and backs off to a safe distance to push the button. She has to get free before he hits the switch.

    Another one is the bystander. MC has got some innocent involved in such a way that they need to be rescued, so MC has to divert to help them.

    The one I most make use of is misdirection by the baddies. Their cover story is designed to delay or divert the MC. MC knows that it’s bogus, but can’t quite see the truth either.

    Second most common is overconfidence by the MC, pushing on alone with an operation when they should back off or get help.

    Job rules don’t seem to have much of effect on my cast. “They tolerate my creative interpretations of Space Fleet regulations, most of the time.” This line came from Jane who thinks rules are like accidents, they only happen to other people.

  17. Audra Tompkins says

    Great post!
    Just wanted you to know, you’re correct about Coke/Pepsi. At least, they’d have to be REALLY in love. And the relationship would have to be a secret. And really, to be absolutely honest, even then it would be impossible; the Pepsi one would have to quit.

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