The February 2014 Writer’s Digest has an excellent article called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Steven James. I blogged about this article a while ago, but I left out a small bit that I think is helpful. It’s a sidebar called “3 Ways to Force the Issue,” and it deals with giving your characters tough choices with the purpose of strengthening character and sucking readers in. (If you just throw tough things in to pad the plot, you’ve got a problem.) Here are the Three Ways:
1. “Make characters choose between two bad things.” James offers two example. Make your character choose between letting two guilty people go free or imprison an innocent, or make your character choose between saving the mother’s life or the baby’s life during a delivery.
Those are rough, especially the last one. Someone’s going to die no matter what choice is made. Reminds me of Lord of the Rings when Frodo’s in Rivendell. He can return home and be slaughtered by Ring Wraiths or take the ring to Mt. Doom and face death at the hands of basically everyone. Tough choice. Facing death can be a fabulous device for writers. Just as in real life, fictional characters can face the end with bravery or with cowardice; face it head-on or hide from it; embrace the opportunity for one more good kick or whimper and whine. And with each choice comes the consequences, the second-guessing (“did I choose wrong?”), the guilty (“I chose wrong!”) and the final victory (“I guess I chose the right path after all.”) What are two bad things your protagonist could be forced to choose between, and why does he choose the one he chooses?
2. “Make them give up a good thing.” Example #1: Happiness or freedom. Live in a world where every desire is fulfilled and never grow old, sick, or bored OR live in the real world where there’s freedom but also suffering and death. Example #2: Comfort or truth. Live with the illusion that he’s loved, or find out the truth even if it means getting hurt.
Again, think of Frodo. He gave up the peace of living in the Shire for the slim opportunity of providing that same peace to the entire world. In my novel CASSANDRA’S CURSE, Cassie gives up her sense of security and safety to save someone else’s life. The nice thing about this problem is there’s usually a fabulous reward at the end because sacrifice is such a noble thing. Readers love to see the protagonist sacrifice themselves for a greater good, even if it’s a tragic ending where the hero dies. If the hero lives, even better. What kind of sacrifice can your protagonist make? What good thing can he give up?
3. “Make them draw the line.” Your protagonist has a goal, an agenda, a purpose. “What factors determine if someone is a freedom fighter or a terrorist? A traitor or a whistle-blower? Greedy or simply ambitious?” Can you find a way to justify, in your protagonist’s head, why he does what he does? Is he skirting the law, his own moral code, or a society standard? Will he be in trouble with someone (his boss, his wife, the Chief of Police) because of his actions?
Sorry for all the Frodo examples, but we just watched all the movies in a row beginning with The Hobbit, so it’s fresh on my mind. Plus, it’s an awesome story that contains everything. Now look at your work-in-progress and find ways to bring your character more fully to life by giving him hardship, tough choices, and a sacrificial attitude.