Fictional Decisions


Decisions are the bread and butter of stories. So much so, that it’s hard to write a compelling story that doesn’t hinge on how the main characters handle one or more decisions. Confront your protagonist with a baffling choice or fateful decision and you’ve got a great opportunity to reveal complexities, contradictions and consequences that will add real depth to your characters and your storyline.

Making decisions

Decision-making is a foundational life skill. Usually when we’re making significant decisions we consider the options and form judgements about them. 

Is this car suitable for my needs?    If I judge that it is, I might buy it.

Is this job better than the one I have now?    If I determine that it is, I might apply for it.

Does this company’s human rights’ record contradict my values?    If that’s the case, I might not choose to buy their products.

When faced with challenging decisions, we also draw on our past experience and other data and apply our imagination to try and picture what would happen if we selected a particular option. What might it be like if I took that job in another city? Would I cope with leaving friends, family and the familiarity of home? We imagine the future and we decide if we like it.

Decisions in popular fiction

Writers can also draw on both experience and imagination to depict the consequences of their protagonist’s choices. The best authors are able to make those decisions and their outcomes both relatable and gripping. Consider these examples from popular novels and films.

Bilbo’s decision – Are you coming or not? 

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, you will certainly remember the decision that Bilbo Baggins is asked to make at the start of The Hobbit. Our hero is conflicted as the conservative ‘Baggins’ side of his personality battles the more adventurous ‘Tookish’ side. 

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”

Tolkien brilliantly evokes the hobbit’s frustration and confusion as the raucous and ravenous party of dwarves trample upon Bilbo’s hospitality and desire for order. We watch our protagonist first trembling at the thought of the perilous quest, and then affronted that the party doubts his courage and suitability for the expedition. 

Harry’s dilemma – Are you good or bad?

A critical decision point for the boy wizard Harry Potter occurs in his first term at Hogwarts, when the Sorting Hat is placed upon his head. Ordinarily the hat itself would make the choice and place the student in a Hogwarts’ house, but Harry is no ordinary student and he is given the option of choosing between Slytherin and Gryffindor. And to make that decision more difficult the Hat paints a tempting picture of what Harry’s future might hold:

“You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness.”

We know immediately that Harry’s choice will be pivotal and represents a much larger contest between good and evil. 

Blake’s choice – Who do you choose?

In the first scene of the Sam Mendes film 1917, Lance Corporal Tom Blake is asked by his commanding officer to get up, pick another soldier and follow the C.O. He is given no explanation and no time to consider his choice and quickly selects Lance Corporal Will Schofield, who is asleep under a nearby tree. The choice proves critical and the film then proceeds to tell us the pair’s dramatic story. And this is unsurprising – most stories depend on a carefully selected supporting cast of characters.

Sliding Doors moment – Who’s in control of my destiny?

The film Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, explores the idea that tiny events or seemingly insignificant decisions can have huge consequences. The ‘What if…?’ question is a fascinating one to explore in your story, although it is hard to do. Science fiction writers might have the edge here, being unhindered by the limits that constrain other genres. A time-travelling character, for example, could be given the power to go back and change their choices.

A related question to that posed in Sliding Doors is wheter our path is determined by fate rather than free will – an important theme in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: 

“Like the mariner in the old story, the winds and streams had driven him within the influence of the Loadstone Rock, and it was drawing him to itself, and he must go. Everything that arose before his mind drifted him on, faster and faster, more and more steadily, to the terrible attraction.”

A writer’s decisions

If you’re a fiction writer, you have the fun of creating scenarios where your characters are forced to make difficult decisions. And when you do, you then have your own decisions to make!

How will your character choose?

Maybe your protagonist is impulsive or overconfident, and will suffer as a result of their carelessness? Most horror films incorporate some version of this – we know the character should be frightened, but there’s always at least one person who is blissfully unaware of the terror that awaits them. 

Perhaps they are cautious and careful, but are undone by someone else’s poor choice, or by a cruel twist of fate? Shakespeare tells us in the prologue of Romeo and Juliette that the young lovers are ‘star-crossed’ and he doesn’t disappoint, delivering a shocking and tragic ending to this story.

Or maybe you’ll use a coin toss to decide the outcome. Cormac McCarthy uses this device in No Country for Old Men and the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of the book brilliantly depicts the same scene, albeit in a different way.

Often the decision itself will highlight or reveal the character’s flaws or virtues. Did they listen to the warnings of others, or stubbornly ignore them? Were they lazy and did they refuse to pay proper attention to the importance of the choice? Were they gullible? Were they blinded by emotion – love, anger, fear? Were they brave, generous or selfless? Did they ignore their conscience?

What happens next?

And then (and this is probably the most enjoyable part) the writer gets to decide what the implications of the decision will be. And that could be a whole novel in itself. Think of Raskolnikov’s psychological agonies in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment. 

There is a perverse pleasure as a reader when we see the protagonist make poor decisions. Sometimes the importance of the decision will be understood by both the character and the reader. On other occasions it will come as a surprise. We know there will be consequences, but a skilful author can generate nail-biting tension by exploiting the uncertainty about how or when the repercussions will be felt. 

Lessons from story books?

Real-life observations and experiences inform fiction. Without them, readers won’t be able to relate to your characters or plots. We have all experienced the angst of a difficult decision, the fear of the unknown and the excited anticipation of what might be. But astute consumers of fiction can also draw lessons from books and films and apply them into their lives. Here’s a few principles from the fictional examples we’ve just considered:

Listen to your values

Every day we’re faced with choices (sometimes they are temptations) that force us to stick to our values and beliefs, or compromise them. Harry Potter’s choice of Slytherin or Gryffindor house offers a metaphor for the choices we make. Choices that align with our values are ultimately rewarding and satisfying.

Be brave

Making decisions sometimes means choosing change, and change is often scary. We don’t need enough courage to finish the journey, just enough – like Bilbo Baggins – to begin. As John F. Kennedy said, every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.

Accept that you don’t control everything

Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Sliding Doors, the direction of our life can sometimes hinge on a simple missed train. And like Lance Corporal Blake, sometimes we’re forced to choose without knowing much about what we’re choosing. But we can never know what might have been – we can only choose carefully and then live with what is. Don’t tie yourself up with hypotheticals.

Bottom line

So what have we learned? Well, decision points are a great way to generate story and provide you with an excellent opportunity to explore elements of your protagonist’s character. It’s up to you to decide whether your character will be the master of their destiny or whether fate will control their future. You also determine whether they’ll choose wisely or poorly – and have the fun of determining the consequences of their choices. So when you sit down to plan out the plot of your next story, think about throwing a difficult decision at your main character. You might just find that your story tells itself.

Have you had success using decision points in your narrative? Maybe there’s a book or film that I’ve overlooked that illustrates this technique? Leave a comment below and make sure to subscribe!

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