Why Characters Need Choices in Fiction

Help me welcome one of our favorite people, Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy). She has a great post on the importance of providing characters with stake-heavy choices, so please read on. 🙂 

Choices drive every single conflict in a novel. The protagonist wants something (the goal), something is preventing her from getting it (the conflict), and she must make a choice about what to do to get what she wants. The opposition might be direct or indirect, but it’s the challenge faced and the choices made to achieve that goal that make the conflict (and the novel) work.

However, if the choice is obvious and no one would ever choose the other options, it’s not really a choice, and any conflict in making that choice goes right out the window.

Making a decision is one of the most important things your characters will ever do. Readers turn the page to see what happens next, and decisions are all about the “next.” As long as they care about that choice.

“Should I have the eggs or the cereal?” is a choice, but no one is going to stay up late to see how that turns out. Because the other half of making a choice is the fear that you’re making the wrong choice (the struggle side of internal conflict).

Now, here’s where it gets tricky.

The characters will have their own concerns, but what makes their choices matter is how readers feel about it. If readers care about the outcome of a choice, that choice matters to them even if it doesn’t matter to the character (who might not realize the importance of the choice yet). If readers don’t care, no matter how important that choice is to the character, it won’t matter to readers.

If a choice is a core conflict choice, then it should have major consequences. If the entire book is about that choice (such as a romance or character-driven novel), there has to be high stakes for making it. If the choice isn’t that important to the overall story, then it can have lesser consequences—but honestly, if the outcome doesn’t matter, why have it in the book in the first place? The choices don’t have to all be bad options, but they should have a consequence that matters to readers and characters.

Let’s look at a very common choice in fiction—choosing between two romantic options.

If the choice is, say, between two men, and there are no consequences aside from hurting one man’s feelings, the stakes aren’t high enough to carry a whole novel—because it isn’t a choice readers are likely to care about. Sure, readers will have a preference between these two men, but unless more is going on in the novel, they can just flip to the back and see who wins.

As a core conflict, a choice between two good things with no consequences for making that choice is probably not going to hold a reader’s interest. But as a subplot, or in conjunction with an internal conflict, it can be an effective choice and provide higher stakes—but only if it also has the potential to cause trouble for your protagonist. And this is key.

Let’s go back to those two men…If hurting one of them was all the consequence the protagonist had to worry about, so what? Harsh as that sounds, whoever “loses” will likely just go on with his life and find a much better gal than the one who dumped him. As for the woman, nothing bad is going to happen to her for breaking his heart. It’s probably not going to hurt her in the long run, even if she does feel bad about it for a while.

If, however, the man was so upset he killed himself, that’s a pretty serious consequence to her actions that she’ll have to carry around the rest of her life (if a clichéd one). If he decided to make the protagonist’s life miserable in revenge, that would cause her trouble. If the man she dumped was her new boss’s brother, she might be in a world of hurt at that new job.

The consequence doesn’t even have to be this overt, and might have subtle ramifications for the protagonist. It can cause emotional troubles—it can make her so guilt-ridden it keeps her up nights and causes a ripple effect. It might make her realize the callousness of her actions and trigger a change to be more compassionate toward people. She might choose not to make a choice and get herself into real trouble by continuing to date both men.

Whatever the choice, let it have the power to affect your protagonist in some way (usually adversely), even if that problem is down the road a bit. If there’s nothing to gain by overcoming a challenge, there’s no point in winning or seeing who wins and how. Just look at all the fans who leave a sporting event before the end when it’s clear who’s going to win. The conflict is no longer important because the outcome is obvious.

Are there hard choices in your current manuscript?

Looking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out my latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

This book will help you:

  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn’t a “one size fits all” solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty road map to how conflict works, designed to help you create the right conflict for whatever genre you’re writing

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, connect with her online:

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Conflict, Empathy, Guest Post, High Stakes, Pacing, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why Characters Need Choices in Fiction

  1. Nas Dean says:

    Thanks for this awesome post. I’ve just bought the book.

  2. Pingback: Tales from the D&D Table: Not the Best Man for the job. | Neither Here nor There....

  3. Excellent advice as always, Janice!

  4. Adan Ramie says:

    Important distinction, Janice! I think a lot of writers make this mistake (myself included!), and it’s always worth going through your outline to make sure you’re not giving the protagonist choices that don’t matter. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      My pleasure. It’s a good reminder for me, too. I do the same thing from time to time. I think we all do.

  5. Talia says:

    I’m not the best at identifying elements like choices and conflict in my own stories. I tend to write the first draft without ever analyzing anything. It’s when I sit down to do the rewrite that I begin analyzing what I’ve already written. Right now, I’m in the middle of revising my WIP, and here is one of the choices one of my characters has to make. This is a newly-added subplot, so I haven’t gotten it all figured out yet, but here’s what I have so far:
    This character is secretly working with the villain. No one else knows it. However, as the story goes on, this character starts having second thoughts. I haven’t quite figured out what the consequences would be, but if the character chooses to keep working alongside the villain, they would be hurting their friends. If they choose to loyalty to their friends over loyalty to the villain, then… that’s what I haven’t figured out yet. xD I know it’s probably a bit cliche, but it will get rewritten and revised at some point.
    Thanks for this post; it really inspired me!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Oh good! I love when that happens. Sounds like you have a good choice brewing. And don’t worry, first drafts can be as messy and vague as you want 🙂 It’s the later drafts when the real work starts.

      You might consider what the villain offers the character their deepest desire, or something they couldn’t get any other way, it might be worth betraying a friend over. To do that to a friend, it would probably have to be something personally valuable to make it worth it.

  6. Janice Hardy says:

    Thanks for having me, guys! So good to be back 🙂

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