How to Make Your Character’s Choices More Difficult

One of the best things about conflict is that it pushes your characters to act. In every scene, your characters are making choices—big ones and small ones and thereby steering their fate. Some decisions will be obvious and require little to no thought, but others will be muddier, with no clear “better” option, generating inner conflict. These choices, provided the characters feel personally invested in the decision, act as a test, revealing who they are.

Finding ways to naturally characterize our characters is gold in storytelling, so making the most of a character’s decisions is a wise move. But when we make choices a bit more complex, they go beyond black-and-white options, which creates tension and potentially painful consequences.

9 Types of Decisions Your Characters Will Have to Make

Let’s look at the types of quandaries that can make decision-making easier… or much more difficult.

1. Minor

These choices will be relatively simple, and the consequences won’t have much impact. Examples include decisions about what to order off a menu, which outfit to wear to the office, or whether to make an appointment now or later.

2. Win-Win

This is the one every character wants but rarely gets, because … writers are evil, and all that. A win-win means both options are good. Either way, the character comes out ahead and anyone impacted by the choice will be happy with the outcome. Win-wins are conflict killers, so if you use one, make sure it comes with some unforeseen price tag attached to it.

3. Win-Lose

These choices appear obvious; one is a good option, the other is not. It means someone will be happy and someone won’t, and this might be okay depending on who is on which end of the stick. For example, if the choice means your protagonist gets what he wants and his rival doesn’t, well, that’s the perfect happily-ever-after. But this scenario can be a hard one if the character has a close relationship with the person who loses. Consider your character’s anguish if he and his friend have both been poisoned, and there’s only one dose of the antidote. If he takes it, it means his friend will die. That’s a hard choice to make.

4. Dilemmas

When neither choice is ideal, you have a dilemma. Decision-making can require a lot of weighing and measuring, because no matter what choice is made, there will be blood. These choices often come down to what the character is willing to sacrifice and for how long. Preferences will also factor into the choice. Would the protagonist rather lose time or money? Should she admit the truth and suffer ridicule for a short time, or drag it out with denials that everyone will see through anyway?

5. Hobson’s Choice

Have you ever been offered something you don’t really want, but maybe it’s slightly better than nothing? That’s a Hobson’s choice. An example would be applying for a promotion and instead being given the choice of a deep pay cut or being laid off.

6. Sophie’s Choice

This scenario is one in which the character must choose between two equally horrible options. Named for the book (and movie) Sophie’s Choice, in which the character must decide which of her two children will be killed, this is known as the impossible, tragic choice. However, it can also simply be a time-and-place decision in which the character can only be in one place at that time. And the ramifications don’t have to be catastrophic. They can be minor—as in the case of the character being able to attend his own college graduation or his grandmother’s 100th birthday party. Regardless of the decision, guilt will accompany the character’s choice in this kind of scenario.

7. Morton’s Fork

This choice is agonizing because both options lead to the same end. It’s Max (Mad Max) handcuffing Johnny the Boy to a gas tanker that has a time-delay fuse and handing him a hacksaw. Dying from the explosion or the loss of blood from cutting off his own ankle … it’s a deceptive choice because there is only one outcome.

8. Moral Choices

Moral choices (Sophie’s Choice is one kind) are those requiring the character to decide between two competing beliefs or to choose whether or not to follow a moral conviction. Does she tell the truth because honesty matters—even when it will deeply hurt someone? Protect a loved one or turn him over to the police? Use an advantage to get ahead, knowing it would be wrong to do so? Moral choices require the character to rationalize the decision so she can feel okay about making it.

9. Do Something or Nothing

In some cases, the character can choose whether to intervene or not get involved. He may not be personally impacted by the outcome either way, or there might be a cost: a risk to his reputation (if not acting paints him as a coward), the moral repercussions of deciding to do nothing (after, say, letting someone die), or even a safety cost (if he chooses to save someone who turns out to be a threat).

***

Whatever choices you weave into the story, find ways to create inner conflict. One method is to pair options that are equal in some way, such as choices that represent two fears, two needs, or two types of risks or sacrifices. You can also focus on elements that are in direct opposition to each other, such as pitting a fear against a need, duty against freedom, or a want against a moral belief. Conflicting emotions, especially the big ones, can also be used to give readers a front-row seat to a meaningful inner struggle.

Once the decision is made, the psychological turmoil can continue in the form of doubt and second guesses. Were the character’s motives pure? Should someone else have made the decision? A choice’s fallout, especially when the consequences negatively impact others, will add still more weight to the character’s burden of guilt and regret. And the closer she is to those impacted by the choice, the worse the fallout will be.

Need More Help With Conflict and How to Use It Effectively?

The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1) is packed with ideas on how to apply meaningful conflict to reveal your characters, challenge them, and keep the story tense and on track. It also digs into a plethora of conflict scenarios to help you plot fresh scenes.

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About Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Her bestselling writing guides are available in eight languages, and are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by writers around the world. She’s also one half of the popular site Writers Helping Writers and co-founder of One Stop for Writers, a creativity portal loaded with one-of-a-kind tools, resources, and a Storyteller’s Roadmap that makes planning, writing, and revising a novel almost criminally easy.

Comments

  1. Grace Dvorachek says

    Yesss! Characters’ choices are one of my favorite sources of conflict—whether internal or external. I also think choices are a better way to make an audience empathize with your character. Instead of having a character passively endure a situation out of their control, it would be so much more emotionally resonate if they actually had a choice in the matter—and a tough choice, at that.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      I agree, painful choices where something is at stake pulls readers in because they can imagine just how difficult it would be to be faced with that situation. And that’s what we want to do as much as possible – link readers to the characters in meaningful ways. 🙂

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I love stories with Moral Choices. They can really make you think. My wife and I just watched “Gone, Baby, Gone” based on the Dennis Lahane novel. Excellent movie and made for an interesting discussion after.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      I agree, I love those moral choices too, especially ones that cause us to pause and wonder “what is right and wrong in this situation?” Because that’s the reality…not everything is black and white, and we can imagine ourselves crossing into the grey in certain situations. It makes us think!

  3. K.M. Weiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Angela!

  4. Thank you for laying out these choices in a list. My favorite, as a reader, is the moral dilemma.

  5. Joan Kessler says

    What a great, quick resource for character choices. Now it’s just a matter of which choice to choose! Thanks for sharing this post!

  6. Leilaniie Pearl Naida says

    One of my characters in the writing I am writing the character makes a choice on giving her daughter up become she has a vision about her becoming evil.

  7. Curt Wellumson says

    Perfect timing for this post! I’m somewhat stuck on my WIP and this gives me focus and direction regarding where to take things next. Thanks!

    • angelaackerman1 says

      Awesome! I love it when the right thing comes along at just the right time! I hope you have lots of ideas on what direction to take your story next!

  8. Barry J Nitikman says

    Great piece. #6 and #7 remind me of a dramatic episode in the Sons of Anarchy Netflix series, about an outlaw motorcycle gang. A disgraced former member was reported to be showing off his gang insignia tattoo on his back, I believe it was to fellow convicts in prison. It’s an absolute rule that if you are banished from an outlaw group, you cannot display the insignia anymore. The gang captured him and offered him the choice: “fire or the knife.” Meaning, they would burn off the tattoo, or slice it off.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      I haven’t watched that series, but I heard it was excellent. And what a perfect example of Morton’s Fork!

  9. I’m thinking the dilemma section of the sequel could be a great place to do this.

    And here are 3 more difficulties.
    Too many options
    Let’s say your character has a smorgasbord of great choices, but not a lot of time to decide which one to use.

    Wrong choice
    Your character makes the wrong choice giving rise to future conflict

    Blind choice
    Your character doesn’t know what’s behind door number one and door number two.you

    You can increase tension and urgency by adding a time element to any kind of choice.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      Yes, these are all good complications to layer on the character – a lack of knowledge (making the best decision with limited knowledge),a lack of vision (to see what will result, especially unintended consequences), and a ticking clock (that tight timeline and no time to deliberate).

  10. Debby Hanoka says

    Thank you for this post! It will come in very handy as I prep for NaNoWriMo.

  11. Thank you for the list of options; there are a few here I had never thought about before. The Hobson’s Choice is exciting. A lot of food for thought there.

    • angelaackerman1 says

      Right? It’s fun to think of new ways to present choices, and make the character frustrated and struggle in a new way. Good luck with your story!

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