Choice plays a critical role in any story. Much of the meaning found in stories is exemplified in the choices characters make, as well as the consequences that follow. And yet, I feel that most characters make very few real choices over the course of their story. And I think that’s necessary. Too many choices can overwhelm an audience, just as too few often make for a boring story.
But then what is a choice? For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to define a choice as any time a character truly considers multiple options, weighing the cost/benefits of each, and then picks one. The key is that, for a moment, there is true uncertainty. The character might choose either/any option.
In contrast, many situations appear to be a choice, but in truth the character never actually considers their options. Three of the most common forms of “nonchoice” are reactions, routines, and adaptations.
A reaction is when a character experiences something and responds immediately. Most reactions are emotional responses to a sudden change. Examples include jumping when surprised, laughing at a joke, or quickly replying to a statement or question said by someone else. In each instance, something happens, and the character responds without hesitation. This means reactions are often very candid, sometimes even blunt.
Routines are a series of actions that have been learned through repetition. Some are learned as a calm series of steps (i.e. taking a shower, making a simple meal, driving a car), others are triggered by specific stimuli (i.e. combat training). One way to recognize a routine is the fact that the character may not consciously realize what they are doing.
For example, imagine someone drives to work Monday through Friday, taking the same route for months. Then, on a random Saturday, they leave for the day, but accidentally drive to work, instead of their actual destination.
Adaptation is when something unexpected forces the character to deviate from their routine. The character is consciously aware of the situation, they’re actively thinking about it, but they’re still not making a choice, because they’re not considering multiple possibilities. Instead, they’re analyzing information and determining the most effective way to continue pursuing their prior goal. The key is that the character will carry out the same actions every time they are in the same scenario.
For example, a driver needs to make a left turn, but there’s a car coming the other way. The distance between the two cars, and the speed of the oncoming car will determine whether the driver turns or waits for the oncoming car to pass, but the answer is defined by circumstance. If the oncoming car is going 25 miles per hour, and is a quarter mile away, the driver will consistently make the turn. If the oncoming car is going 35 miles per hour, and is only 20 feet away, the driver will consistently wait.
Let’s look at two examples from literature, Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and Frodo Baggins in Fellowship of the Ring.
Ned Stark in Game of Thrones (spoiler warning)
At the beginning of the story, Ned Stark is living comfortably in his home of Winterfell. He manages his land, his people, and his family, offering training, guidance, and occasionally enforcing the law. When the King comes to see him, and asks him to become the Hand of the King, he refuses, until he learns of a secret plot that threatens the King, as well as his allies.
Observations: This represents Ned’s first real choice, whether or not to become Hand, though one could argue that both times, Ned believed there was only 1 correct answer.
As Hand, Ned quietly investigates the plot against the King (and his allies), while also exercising his authority as Hand, relying on his own moral compass to guide him. In the background he struggles with his younger daughter, Arya, who wishes to learn swordplay. Eventually he relents and hires an instructor for her.
Observations: Ned chose to become Hand so that he could investigate the plot against the King. His investigation is a natural extension of that original choice. Ned is adapting to the changing circumstances surrounding his goal.
Similarly, since Ned is following his moral compass, which is a pre-existing aspect of his personality, he is not making a choice when he exercises his authority. He already decided what is right and wrong. Now he is simply following through with that choice.
When Ned’s moral decisions are overruled, he resigns as Hand. Later, he receives word of what his wife has done, and declares she acted on his authority. A fight breaks out. In the aftermath, the King asks him to resume his role as Hand, warning Ned that if he refuses the King will choose Jamie Lannister, someone far less honorable.
Observations: Ned continues to follow his moral compass, opposing immoral acts as best he can, protecting his wife, and ensuring the corrupt do not amass more power.
One might think that resuming his role as Hand represents a choice, but I believe the key to Ned’s change is the change in circumstances. If Ned knew, from the beginning, that Jaime Lannister would become Hand, I don’t think he would have resigned.
Ned learns part of the truth, and confronts Cersei Lannister. He warns her to flee or face the consequences. Instead she marshals her forces and confronts Ned, defeating him. Imprisoned, Ned initially refuses to cooperate, until they threaten his family.
Observations: During this conflict Ned is approached by multiple individuals, each with their own suggestions for how he should handle the situation, but he rejects all of them on moral grounds. He remains committed to doing the right thing as he perceives it.
Ned only makes three real choices:
- Become Hand, in an effort to unravel the plot.
- Follow his own moral code, and uphold the law (in that order).
- Support his daughter, Arya, in her study of swordplay (despite social conventions).
Most of Ned’s actions are really just an extension of these choices. When Ned is confronted with a problem or challenge, he doesn’t ask himself “What are my options?” Instead he asks “How can I best continue to pursue my goals,” and it’s the fact that he continues to pursue the same goal(s) that qualify most of his actions as adaptations, rather than new choices. Ned’s fate at the end of Game of Thrones serves to reinforce one of the recurring themes of the world of Ice & Fire: that whether a person is moral or corrupt has no bearing on whether they triumph or falter.
It’s also notable that most of Ned’s decisions occur earlier in the story, while the later half sees him continue with the choices he’s already made. This makes him a less proactive character. While others adapt and make new choices, he refuses to bend, setting the stage for his tragic end.
Frodo Baggins in Fellowship of the Ring (spoiler warning)
Frodo begins the story in the Shire, a peaceful community. When his uncle Bilbo departs, he leaves many things to Frodo, including a magical ring. Gandalf (a powerful wizard), concerned about the mystery of the ring, departs to investigate.
Later Gandalf returns to explain the history of the ring, revealing that it is powerful and evil. Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf, but Gandalf explains why he cannot accept it. Confronted with this reality, Frodo recognizes that the ring must be moved, and agrees to bring it to Rivendell.
Observations: Now some might argue that Frodo doesn’t have much of a choice, but Gandalf doesn’t explicitly tell him what to do. He only outlines the situation, and emphasizes what cannot be (the ring cannot stay hidden in the Shire).
Frodo departs the Shire, initially joined by Sam, and later Merry, Pippin, and eventually Aragorn. They pass through dangers, but manage to make it to Rivendell with the ring. A council is convened to discuss the ring, and Frodo once again steps forward, offering to carry the ring, and try to bring it to Mt Doom, where it can be destroyed.
Observations: Throughout Frodo’s journey, the characters repeatedly consider which path to take, but (as with the left turn example cited earlier) I would propose that these represent adaptations. The path they take is determined by striking a balance between expedience and danger through exposure. Even in the case of Weathertop, where Aragorn concludes that the strategic value of such a view is undeniable.
It’s only at the council meeting, where numerous individuals gather to discuss their dilemma, and decide what to do, that Frodo realizes he needs to again take up the ring.
The group travel far, and suffer many setbacks. Eventually they reach the forest of Lorien, an elven stronghold that offer them support. While there, Frodo offers the ring to Galadriel (an elven leader). She declines.
Observations: Once the decision is made, and the journey planned (mostly by Gandalf and Aragorn), few decisions remain to be made, and prior to Galadriel, none are made by Frodo, who lacks the background knowledge necessary to participate in those discussions. Much of the text deals with the reality of trekking across the land, and evading/fighting opposition.
The group continue on, but soon reach a point where they must choose, whether to head to Mordor or Minas Tirith. Many look to Frodo, but he asks for time to think.
Observations: Information and resources are provided, but for the most part the characters continue on. They postpone their one big decision for as long as possible.
Boromir confronts Frodo, but Frodo manages to get away. He decides that he must go to Mordor, but fearing for his friends, chooses to sneak off alone.
Observations: Considering Frodo reaches his decision after a conflict with Boromir, some might say he’s reacting to that experience, but I would counter that Frodo was already debating the matter, and the conflict with Boromir represented a last crisis that forced Frodo to make his choice, even though he was still uncertain what choice to make.
The others go looking for Frodo, but Sam correctly infers what Frodo will do, and confronts him. Despite his misgivings, Frodo relents and allows Sam to accompany him.
Frodo makes 6 choices:
- He offers the ring to Gandalf, and then settles on leaving the Shire with the Ring.
- He chooses to take up the ring again in Rivendell.
- He chooses to offer the ring to Galadriel.
- Frodo asks for time to consider the matter of which path to take.
- Frodo chooses to go alone to Mordor.
- Frodo changes his mind and lets Sam come along.
Frodo’s decisions emphasize his humility. He is arguably the most important character in the story, and yet he relies almost entirely on the guidance of others. His most independent choice is to offer the ring to Galadriel, continuing to demonstrate his humility. It’s only reluctantly that Frodo asserts himself. Frodo’s story (and role as the protagonist) exemplify one of the recurring themes of the story, the value of humility over pride and ambition.
There’s also the placement of each choice. For the first three-quarters of the story, Frodo makes very few decisions (two instances of accepting the ring, and two instances of offering t to someone else). These are very passive choices, granting others power or reluctantly accepting his role. In contrast, during the last segment of the story, Frodo makes conflicted choices (refusing to rush to a decision, choosing to go alone, and revising that decision.) These are active choices, indicative of Frodo’s growth, rising to the challenge and relying on his own judgement, rather than the guidance of others.
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19 thoughts on “Discussing Choice vs Reaction #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”
I wonder if Frodo’s real choice in most of these situations is whether or not to continue on the journey. It feels repetitive as a choice, and I’m no expert in adventure stories, but I wonder if this is the predominant choice in many adventure stories: keep going or go back? Very interesting discussion.
Agreed, I think in many stories the most recurring choice any character makes is to continue as before.
The choices the characters make tell us so much about them. Great points!
Thank you. I recently had the experience of revisiting a story I didn’t care for, and trying to figure out why such large sections didn’t pop for me. I ultimately realized that those sections featured a character who was simply “continuing,” which led to a feeling that things were overly predictable until they once again reached a point of greater uncertainty.
Choices are important. It gives the characters agency so they are in control of their own life, good or bad, instead of always reacting to it.
Interesting analysis. Character motivation to make a choice can be simple or complex. I get irritated when a person says he “had no choice” in making a decision (usually after a poor one). There’s always at least two choices – do, or do not. Choices, especially the moral type, become exponentially more complicated when the threat or benefit of the action affects other people, particularly one’s own blood.These conflicts add layers of complexity to our work.
Agreed. It’s not that there are no choices, rather as a convention a person (or character) has decided not to consider all their options, as a way of simplifying things. Often it’s only in those truly dire circumstances, when the character cannot maintain their preferred status quo, that they finally open up to the full spectrum of choices available to them.
Interesting in depth look at how the stories play out because of choices made and how their personality traits mean there is only one answer to each decision.
Mmm. I feel that choice is paramount to creating a proactive character, the choices a character makes shape the story they are expressing. In many ways I feel the major transition points (i.e. in the 3 Act Structure) are often marked by a moment of indecision.
I think part of good storytelling is ensuring that at least one character is actively considering their options, creating uncertainty, as their choice may ripple out and force others to reconsider their choices in turn.
I love this philosophical breakdown of character behavior. I’m curious: for you, does knowing these distinctions help you craft of stories and if so, how?
Interesting piece. I seem to remember reading somewhere (I don’t recall precisely where) that Ned’s choices were made because he couldn’t choose any other way & still be himself, and once he’d made those choices things couldn’t end any other way. Does that sound familiar?
I can’t say that I recall a remark like that within Game of Thrones, but I’ve definitely heard of the concept in other places. There’s definitely some truth to the idea that characters (and people) have to be true to who they are, and therefore some outcomes become inevitable.
I think there’s a pattern that many tragedies feature the protagonist victorious, but in the process they’ve transformed themselves into a person they would loathe under normal circumstances.
It’s definitely an interesting debate, whether victory at the cost of “who we are” constitutes a phyric victory.
Great post! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.
I like your way of describing this – choices and nonchoices.
I’ve recently read a story where a lot of things happen to the main character – most of her actions are reactions or routines, with almost no proactive choices that moved the plot forward. The result was a novel that felt largely reactive … and that didn’t make it interesting.
I’ve also read action novels that read like the main character was being led through the plot – each clue presented itself at exactly the right time, and the character’s big choice was to run away from the dude with the gun, or stay and be shot (yeah, no prizes for guessing which he chose). Again, the novel was largely reactive, which made it somewhat boring despite the fast pace.
I’ve also encountered stories like that.
I think the one that really tested my patience was one where the characters made choices, but every choice they made either failed to make any lasting change, or the change was eventually undone, to the point where the story could have resolved the same way if the protagonists were in comas for the entire sequence of events.
By the end of the book, the main character should be making active choices, usually leading him into darker waters, instead of being a subject that things happen to him.
The reader wants to emphasize with the characters, and they can do that by seeing themselves in their place.
Thanks for your input on a key part of writing.
I think most stories do operate with a pattern of protagonists shifting towards proactive as the story progresses, but I wonder if that’s true of tragedies, horror stories, and other types where the characters are declining into a dark outcome.
For example, Othello. As the story progresses, Othello becomes more and more emotionally charged by Iago’s manipulations, until he is too upset to think clearly. Iago becomes the author of Othello’s actions, exercising a very thorough control over him.