X things to do when a character you write makes a choice you don’t like

I think readers of blogs – and search engines – are attracted to the ‘X tips to do Y’ kinds of posts.

I think it’s because they find the idea of a quick and dirty list they can check their own opinions against quickly – by the titles alone if necessary – appealing.

And, if they’re like me, they wonder if they’ll pick up at least one usable tip – which would make skimming the post (ie, reading the subtitles in the list) worth their time.

Unlikable actions by likable characters?

So here we go: characters in fiction often have to do things the reader won’t like – or the story comes to an abrupt halt, fizzles out, or becomes ridiculous.

A young woman turns down a marriage proposal.

A young woman goes down to a spooky basement when there are reports of serial killers in the neighborhood.

A young woman speaks to a stranger under less than savory circumstances.

Hmmm. Am I seeing a pattern here? No? Let’s try harder:

A local rich man chooses to marry his penniless governess – instead of his social equal and a member of his social caste.

A handsome man goes for…

Wait. That’s just as bad a pattern.

Try again.

A man chooses not to tell a woman he likes about an unsuitable marriage in his past.

A woman neglects to mention when it comes up in conversation that she has had a child out of wedlock.


A moral, legal, or ethical dilemma?

A man makes the difficult choice to reveal to a guest in his house that he has been obsessed by her.

Then he tells himself that because he is accusing his ex-wife of slander in the matter of him sleeping with that hypothetical guest (he actually didn’t), it means he can’t sleep with the guest now (no matter how attractive the idea is), because if the slander suit comes to trial, and, absent any proof of any kind, it comes down to his credibility in the matter of whether he slept with his guest before the accusation of slander, and he has in fact slept with her after the accusation of slander, his inability to lie convincingly about the latter will make him not believable in the former.

A long-winded way of saying that if the defense attorney can prove on the stand that the man slept with his guest at any time, then the man will not be believed if he insists it was not part of a pattern that began before he said it did. Absent other evidence, the pattern (having slept with her at all) will trump his insistence that it didn’t happen before.

So he tells himself all this malarkey means he can’t sleep with her. Ever.

The dilemma is for the writer

Sufficiently muddy?

This is the kind of thing that gets writers in a tizzy about details.

We can’t just tell you what happened – that’s cheating. We have to show you this man reaching that decision for himself so that you will believe it – or believe that he believes it. In his thoughts, or in a conversation with his best friend, or in a deliberation with his lawyer, or yelling at the ex.

And we have to do it a lot better than I just did above – that went round and round in circles; if you even bothered trying to follow my description, your head probably hurts.


The hardest things for a writer to motivate properly are these odd ones where a character does something necessary for the plot but unbelievable in normal circumstances, and which the reader doesn’t want the character to do. (Yes, the reader is pulling for these two to get it on, and get over these silly artificial barriers he keeps throwing up.)

In some types of stories the Gordian knot is simply severed, he grabs her, she doesn’t fight back, and nobody cares afterward that his principles were kind of tossed to the winds because… well, because.

In other stories – it matters. A lot. And it will eventually really matter to the reader, too, only the reader doesn’t know it until the end is reached, and the end without the violation of putative principles is much more satisfying than it would have been elsewise.

Whose job is it – reader’s or writer’s?

Which is why I struggle with these things – so the reader doesn’t have to.

And I share it with you to show writing isn’t all pixies and rainbows. There’s a lot of hard work buried in there somewhere.

If you’re a reader, I expect sympathy. And, when I get it right, maybe some appreciation. Better still, that you don’t even notice what I did because the writing is so smooth.

If you’re another writer, I expect tea and cookies and a ‘there, there, there.’ Not help: if I’m going to call myself a writer, I have to figure out these things on my own and learn to write them.

Thank you for listening to today’s diatribe. Oh, and sorry: I don’t have a list, and I don’t know how many ‘X’ is.

It would be nice if YOU could supply the list.


6 thoughts on “X things to do when a character you write makes a choice you don’t like

  1. Rachel6

    There, there, there 😉
    Your plot example sounds far too familiar for my comfort level…Ah well, if I’m to be tortured at least it’s in interesting ways!


  2. juliabarrett

    Yes, make a list! Well, I guess you already did. There are times for complicated and times to be straight up in your face. That’s the way I look at it.


  3. john flanagan

    Genuinely interesting and worthwhile opinions here, Alicia, a real pleasure to read and ponder.
    I hope you’re doing well and over the worst. My very best to you always



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