Giving Your Protagonist Tough Choices

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penRecently, I’ve noticed a lot of manuscripts in my submission pile that have a similar issue: the protagonist of the story didn’t have to make any tough choices. They reacted to the situation they were in, but they didn’t make any choices that would drive the narrative forward. Or, when they did make choices, they were too easy, and the outcome was obvious. This can create several problems for the story.

For one thing, it makes your story predictable and drains it of tension. Readers won’t be compelled to keep reading, because they’ll already know what the protagonist will do. Worse, not giving a character any choices keeps them from being an active participant in the story. Making things harder for your character provides the conflict and tension it needs.

For example, let’s say I’ve written a scene where my teenage protagonist, who is on the hunt for her missing father, finds a clue as to where the villain might have taken her father. What will happen next is obvious—of course she’ll decide to follow the clue and find her father, right?

Now, let’s try to make that choice harder. Let’s say she still finds that clue—but now she also finds out that her little sister is sick. Now she has several possible options. Does she risk leaving her sister behind alone? Should she take her sister along and risk dragging her into a dangerous situation? Or should she stay with her sister and risk something bad happening to her father? This is a choice with no right answers, which is what makes it so much more compelling. She might still make the same decision to go after her father—after all, that’s where I want the story to go—but now I have all of this conflict and tension to work with, and her decision isn’t immediately obvious to readers. It’s the same plot point that results in the same action, but it’s so much more compelling if she’s forced to make a tough choice.

So, how can you make sure that your protagonists are making enough tough choices? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you take a look at your manuscript:

  1. How many choices did you offer the protagonist?

How often does your character take action without being given an alternate choice? Obviously not every action can have options, but it should happen frequently, especially in important moments. Look for opportunities to raise the stakes, add unpredictability, or heighten the tension.

  1. Where could you add more choices?

Again, not every action can be driven by choices—sometimes the point is just to get from A to B. But look for scenes that might be lacking in tension or conflict. Ask your beta readers or critique partners which scenes felt the most predictable. Look for opportunities to give your protagonist more options (and don’t make any of them good).

  1. Are there any internal struggles?

Internal conflict is often where the real emotional weight of your story comes in. How does your protagonist feel about their mistakes? What are they willing to sacrifice to reach their goal? How far are they willing to go? How can their flaws get in the way? How can they possibly choose between two horrible options? It’s these emotional struggles that readers relate to most.

  1. Are there any external struggles?

On the other hand, it’s external struggle that often speeds up the pacing and keeps the story moving forward. It might not be compelling for readers if you spend too much time in the protagonist’s head. I don’t usually see issues with this as I often as I see a lack of internal struggle, but it’s still worth examining, especially if you’re writing contemporary or literary fiction that isn’t as action-driven.

  1. Are the outcomes easy to predict?

When you do give characters choices, be careful about setting up false or easily-resolved conflicts. I see a lot of queries that promise a difficult choice for the protagonist, but I can spot the outcome a mile away. No matter how many choices you give the protagonist, readers won’t be engaged if they can always see the result coming. Try to avoid having characters make obvious choices, or try to give them an impossible choice that doesn’t have an obvious solution.

  1. Are the choices hard enough?

It won’t matter how many choices you give the characters if they aren’t tough choices. If the right or best choice is clear, then it isn’t really a choice; it’s just something hard the character has to do. Every choice should have negative consequences, and there shouldn’t be a good or right option. Make it impossible for your character to decide, and then force them to decide anyway. These kinds of choices will create genuine conflict and tension for your story.

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What do you think? How often do you give your characters tough choices? Is this something you struggle with? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

Revision Strategies for Your Novel

Setting Basics: Writing Through the Eyes of Your Narrator

7 Common Mistakes I See as an Editor

4 Tips for Developing Your Voice

Understanding Point of View: The Basics

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