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Old 02-23-2018, 02:08 PM   #6
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Join Date: Feb 2018
Location: US
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Idea Character-Defining Choices 101!

(This is an excerpt from my book, In the Box)

A Character-Defining Choice is a choice that:

Reveals character,

demonstrates (shows) how active the character is by moving the plot forward, and,

defies audience expectations.

These are nearly-impossible decisions that your Protagonist must make against powerful odds with high stakes. And, because of the stressful nature of these decisions, the character has no choice but to reveal her/his true nature to the audience.

Once the character is faced with a Character-Defining Choice and chooses, we, the audience, get to see what is truly important to them and who they really are.

In The Matrix, Neo, despite being told by the Oracle that he’s not The One, decides to save Morpheus from the Agents anyway; knowing full-well that it will likely be a suicide mission.

In Hot Fuzz, Police Officer Danny Butterman, with his criminal father in his sights, decides not to shoot him as he runs away trying to escape custody. (Also, Point Break)

Hell, even Friends, on the episode titled “The One Where No One’s Ready,” Ross, trying to show Rachel how much she means to him, agrees to “drink the fat” from a cup (thanks, Joey).

Now, a Character-Defining Choice, in fact, every choice, boils down to three things:

The character has a goal (Motivation),

The character has an obstacle, and,

The character has two valid options for accomplishing said goal.

But what separates a Character-Defining Choice from other choices are the stakes.

This next part is very important, so, pay attention to this one!


False Choices

False Choices are something you should avoid at all costs, and should not give them to your characters if you can help it; which, by the way, you can!

A False Choice can manifest in one of two ways:

The first, a Win-Win situation.

In a Win-Win situation, there is no wrong answer. The character ultimately doesn’t risk anything. They both lose nothing and gain something.

For example, a character having to choose between becoming the most powerful person in the world or finding true love.

That’s not a decision, that’s an idyllic fantasy; and while us writers deal with the fantastic, this isn’t it!

The next manifestation of a False Choice is:

Reactive Decision

In this instance, the character is faced with a decision where s/he will either do nothing (very bad!!), or do what the audience expects them to do (boring!).

For example, our hero, insert name of any action hero ever, with all his powers and north-facing moral compass, watches the train hurdle towards the damsel in distress that’s tied to the tracks.

(Spoiler: sarcasm ahead!)

Oh, no. What ever will he do?

Save the girl, or let her die?


A Reactive Decision is a complete cop-out by the writer, and is incredibly unfair for the character.

A Reactive Decision doesn’t pressure the character at all. It doesn’t push them to grow and evolve. It stops their Character Arc dead in its tracks.

In a Reactive Decision, the character has no choice but to keep going through the motions and continue to do what they’ve always done!

There is no conflict, no drama, and, ultimately, no story!


Avoiding False Choices can be done in one of two ways: Lose-Lose situations, and “Psych!” Decisions.

First, Lose-Lose situations.

A Lose-Lose situation is likely the most powerful Character-Defining Choice you can ever give your characters.

In this situation, your character, regardless of what she or he chooses, will lose something precious.

There is no all-out victory. There is no leaving unscathed.

The character, despite all their abilities and resources, is going to lose something very dear; and, for better or worse, they have to choose. It is an impossible choice, but, nevertheless, one that clearly reveals character.

And, for a perfect example, we look no further than Christopher Nolan’s

The Dark Knight.

In one of the most memorable Character-Defining Choices/scenes in recent memory, Batman, believing the Joker’s words, must choose between saving Rachel, the woman that he loves, and Harvey, Gotham City’s White Knight and best hope.

This choice, along with its stakes and consequences, is heavily connected to Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s character.

Saving Rachel would mean that Batman, more specifically Bruce Wayne, would get to keep his oldest and dearest friend, whom he loves, out of harm’s way and away from the Joker.

Saving Harvey would mean that Batman would no longer have to exist. Bruce Wayne can finally live a normal life, and Gotham City would be safe from crime; without needing the Batman.

The cost of this decision, regardless of what Batman chooses, will be severe.

Losing either Rachel or Harvey would cost Batman an incredible amount. So, whomever Batman chooses to save will demonstrate what he values more (love or Gotham City) and show the audience (and Bruce himself) what kind of character he is.

Regardless whom he chooses to save, in this intense, impossibly difficult moment, in this one decision, we will know Batman’s true character.

The stakes are high and the tension mounting.

Then, Batman chooses Rachel.

In that moment, Bruce realizes that his resolve to punish criminals and keep his city safe, that the Batman, is overshadowed by Bruce’s love for Rachel. We as the audience realize that Gotham, from that point on, will always come second to Bruce Wayne.

At this point, from a character perspective, the outcome of that decision, what happens next, is irrelevant.

But, frick that! We’re still talking about it cause it’s so. Freaking. Awesome!

So, Bruce chooses Rachel, something that a lot of us expected.

But, so did the Joker.

Despite everything that Bruce is capable of, with all his training, gadgets and resources, we see Bruce fail! (By Oprah, Nolan is such a great writer!)

The Joker had found Batman’s biggest weakness and masterfully exploited it.

Bruce arrives at the address Joker gave him. He finds Harvey there, not Rachel.

The Joker had tricked Batman.

Gordon and the rest of the Gotham P.D. fail to reach Rachel in time.

Rachel dies.

Bruce loses the most important thing he has in his life.

At the start of the movie, Bruce Wayne was a man torn between personal desires (love, normal life) and duty (protecting the innocent), and after making the decision to save Rachel, he, and we the audience, knew where he stood.

It’s important to remember that Nolan dramatized all this all while moving the Plot forward in a “no turning back” direction.

You should strive to put your characters in impossible situations like that.

The second way to avoid False Choices is through

“Psych!” Decisions.

A “Psych!” Decision is when a character actively does something that the audience doesn’t expect, but is still in line with their character.

This decision must both reveal Character and move the Plot forward; both being criteria that I’ve stressed more than once in this book.

But, please re-read that last part of that definition.

“…is still in line with their character.”

Meaning, don’t simply have your characters do something crazy just for shock and awe. It has to be a decision that sprouts from their personality, out of who they are. It can’t come out of left field!

For this, we’re discussing the brilliant

Sherlock Holmes 2.

While being attacked by Moriarty’s men on the train, Sherlock, Watson and Mary must find a way out.

In the scene, Watson works to hold off their attackers. While Watson does this, Sherlock, in true Sherlock fashion, throws Mary out of the moving train and into the river far below.

Now, as the audience, we expected Sherlock to save the day with a clever solution that kept all of our heroes safe. We expected him to fight off Moriarty’s men with Watson, his bestie/P.I.C., and get them all out of danger; or, at the very least, keep Mary, Watson’s take-no-nonsense wifey, from harm!

And, he does; sorta.

Sherlock’s goal from the beginning wasn’t to just stop Moriarty from harming Watson and Mary. It was to get Watson to go adventuring with him again. One last case.

And Sherlock does just that!

He cleverly stopped Moriarty’s men, kept Mary safe, and pretty much trapped Watson into going to solve the case with him; all while giving the audience an exciting and unexpected “Psych!” solution to their problem.

Important Note:

As a writer, you must remember that a character’s Motivations—what they want—will affect the many Obstacles they must face.

Sherlock wants Watson and Mary safe. (Want)

So, the writers have Moriarty attack Watson and Mary; because they are one of Sherlock’s weaknesses. (Obstacle)

Sherlock wants Watson back as his partner. (Want)

So, Sherlock must cleverly persuade/trap Watson into helping him. (Obstacle)

Remember, these are Character-Defining Choices. They are present in the story, but should be shown sparingly to the audience.


Because you have to take the time to establish how important the other characters and consequences of each decision are to your Protagonist first, before giving your Protagonist the decision.

Otherwise, the audience will not be invested.

Choosing between jam or jelly does not a character-defining moment make!

(But if you can attach stakes and conflict to a decision like that as a writer, I would totally come and watch your movie!)

The key to making any Character-Defining Choice, is to have both your character and the audience feel something.

Phew! We’ve covered a lot about Character, so far!

Now we know all the internal elements of Character: Defining Moments, Needs, Fear and Character-Defining Choices.

Hope that helps, fam!

Thanks for reading!

Write on!

Aki, out!

P.S. I really wanna thank Ashok Allu for being my very FIRST patron! Ashok, if you're reading this: you a real one!

Last edited by AAAslan; 02-25-2018 at 09:13 PM. Reason: WalterB's EXCELLENT ADVICE!
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