Which choice? Create compelling characters by giving them dilemmas

choices unkreativesThe rock star had a seizure in his hotel room. He recalled little of it; just a long fight to breathe. As he came to, the other band members were telling the paramedics he’d be fine for the night’s gig, a doctor would take care of him. He didn’t want to let them down, of course, but he felt like death.

His girlfriend had witnessed the unremembered time: 10 minutes of jerking, clawing and choking, pleading for help; the brutal rescue where paramedics only just got him back. She saw the other band members playing down the dangers, arguing with the medics. She wanted to tell them how bad he was before any of them arrived, and how long it went on for; except he was so fragile that might trip another attack. And none of them would listen.

Who is in the worse situation? The rock star or the girlfriend?

If it was real life the answer is a no-brainer. But in story terms, it’s worse to be the girlfriend. So she’s the character we’re more interested in, the more natural focus for our curiosity. But many novice writers would make the rock star the central character.

Why is the girlfriend more fascinating to readers?

She has the heavier burden. She knows that if she could muster enough guts, wits and nous, she could stand up to the band and save her lover. Her conscience is telling her so. But she is outnumbered, has no clout, and even the boyfriend will listen to them rather than her. She is trapped and isolated with her problem. And even if he gets through this show, what about the next and the next? She is burdened with guilt and responsibility. He is burdened only with biology.

When writers want to make us concerned for a character they often try to enlist our sympathy with a trauma or a timebomb. But the reader knows the writer can use a timebomb as the whim takes them; either the rock star dies or doesn’t. Choices and decisions, though, exploit what stories do best; they pit characters against each other, against their own failings, fears and weaknesses. In the above scenario, although the reader might be concerned for the rock star as a fellow human being, they’ll really feel for the girlfriend.

Great stories make us walk in a character’s emotions. A terrific way to do that is to give characters difficult choices. Can she stand up to these people? Does she have the courage to do the right thing? What would it kick off? Will she muster the ability to convince people? We can follow this struggle. If she does the wrong thing, she carries it like a wound herself, but one that was made by the story and her own actions.

Thanks for the dilemma pic Unkreative.

Badge_topwebsiteIn other news, I just got the ‘Top website for Self-Publishers’ award from theroz birthday plus NYN2pics 052comp Alliance of Independent Authors. This badge is, according to their email, a benchmark to signify ‘excellence, integrity, creativity and helpfulness in the indie self-publishing world’. If anyone reading this helped it along – thank you. And if you liked this post, there is plenty more advice on getting the reader on your MC’s side in the Nail Your Novel characters book.

Okay, back to the subject. Let’s talk about stories where the writers get us rooting for the characters by the dilemmas they face. Indeed, have you done this in one of your stories?

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  1. #1 by Viv on June 9, 2013 - 9:05 pm

    Yes, in almost all of them. There’s a choice between the easy option and the tough option; funnily enough, that seems to mirror my own life.
    In my most recent novel The Bet, the main character has to endure the consequences of his own misinformed decisions and also resist the temptation to fight back. In the sequel to The Bet, the mc is daily offered the chance to become an abuser, a manipulator of others.

  2. #3 by Kim Koning @AuthorKimKoning on June 9, 2013 - 10:50 pm

    WooHoo! Congrats on your award Roz! Completely deserved! :)

    Great post as well. I was just having a chat about this with one of my cps the other day…All about how fiction – especially creating characters storylines + deciding which paths to choose – is all about Choices.

  3. #5 by Hugh on June 10, 2013 - 5:19 pm

    I once heard a Hollywood person say that character in fiction is decision-making under pressure. That definition has stuck in my memory – as will your (related) statement above ‘She is burdened with guilt and responsibility. He is burdened only with biology.’ Both, for me, illuminate the truism that in fiction whilst character and plot are distinct, one can’t exist without the other. (I bet your new book talks about this – I’ve bought it, and am about to read it.)

    Congrats on your award, and, as always, a very apt pic on the post.

    • #6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on June 10, 2013 - 7:21 pm

      Hugh – always a pleasure to see you here.
      And yes, I agree with you about plot and character. Indeed, the characters book started out covering both those elements because they are so closely twined; only it became so long that I had to split it. But I do talk a lot about how much of a story comes from characters, their needs, their individual natures and the peculiar stresses they find themselves under.

      Glad you like the pic. The photographer explained it’s an abandoned hospital in Germany.

  4. #7 by Luke Thomas French on June 10, 2013 - 5:28 pm

    A really helpful lesson, thanks Kim – I’ll remember that it’s the tick, tick, tick of the timebomb which sends our hearts pounding! PS. this is a lovely blog I have stumbled upon.

  5. #10 by Candy Korman on June 10, 2013 - 5:43 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this issue while working on the second draft of my new romantic suspense novella. Creating heightened tension comes from the edginess of dilemmas. If they are too easy to solve, there’s no reason to keep reading until the end.

    Great post!

  6. #12 by Daniel R. Marvello on June 10, 2013 - 5:56 pm

    “Choices and decisions, though, exploit what stories do best; they pit characters against each other, against their own failings, fears and weaknesses.”

    Absolutely! Dilemma is my favorite form of character conflict. It is usually quite personal, frequently compelling (readers tend to “take a side”), and often creates a lot of tension. The best part is that the fun isn’t over when the character makes a decision: the decision can take her down a path full of obstacles and second guesses, no matter which choice she makes.

    Congratulations on the award. You do good work here. :-)

  7. #16 by Laurie on June 10, 2013 - 7:22 pm

    Congrats on your award! This blog is so helpful for me. Can’t wait to read your characters book.

  8. #18 by Dina Keratsis on June 11, 2013 - 2:23 pm

    Yes, congratulations! I just recently discovered your blog and it helps keep me on the positive side of writing rather than drown in the negative “what-if?”. You do good work. Thank you.

    As to the question, when writing my first novel, I was surprised, after the fifth re-write of a critical scene, when the heroine told me to get out of her way and took over. She chose to love her enemy. That is not the plan I had for her when I stuck her in a life or death situation. Changed everything for me as a reader, writer and person. (Okay, I will admit, I still have trouble loving my enemy. Especially that Ben. Jerry, too. No problem eating them, though!)

    • #19 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on June 11, 2013 - 6:41 pm

      Thanks, Dina! I find writing takes a lot of persistence, and it helps to share possibilities and solutions.

      Your novel situation sounds familiar…not in terms of repeating someone else’s story, more as a problem I’ve encountered too. You offer the character a choice and they do the opposite from the thing you planned. But bravo for going with it – that means you’ve found the truth of the story (as certainly is evident in what you’ve said about how it surprised and changed you).

  9. #20 by cathysmallwood on June 17, 2013 - 12:35 pm

    Excellent post and comments. Am realizing one of the problems with my main character is that she has too many dilemmas, many of which are important (potentially life-changing), but none are urgent – i.e. compelling to the reader. Not sure what to do next, so have just bought your latest book for clues!

    • #21 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on June 17, 2013 - 12:56 pm

      Thanks, Cathy! And this is such an interesting problem you’ve identified with your novel. Many dilemmas, but which will make the reader want to know what she does next? Thanks for taking the leap of faith with my book – have fun with it!

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