Today’s storytelling exercise is an excerpt from my book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises, which helps beginning to intermediate storytellers develop skills in the craft of fiction writing. This exercise explores one of the most important elements of any story: the characters. It’s called “Character Choices.” Enjoy!
We get to wherever we are in life through circumstance and the choices we make. Sometimes we make good decisions. Sometimes we make bad decisions. Sometimes our decisions are neither good nor bad but a matter of personal preference. Decisions run the gamut from minor issues, like how we deal with spilling coffee on a new shirt, to major issues, like deciding whether to have a child or get a divorce.
The choices we make say a lot about who we are. They reveal our tastes, interests, priorities, and moral codes.
The same is true for characters and the choices they make. If you want to see what kind of people your characters are, force them to make difficult decisions, and their inner workings will be revealed. Such choices are integral to characterization and conflict and therefore are almost always present in stories.
Think of situations from stories in which a character had to make a difficult or meaningful decision. Write a description of the situation, the choices that were available to the character, the choice the character ultimately made, why they made that choice, the consequence of that choice, and what their decision says about the kind of person they are.
Use a character from a story you’re writing, or quickly sketch a new character for this exercise. Put the character in a situation that forces the character to make a difficult decision. There should be at least three options for the character to choose from. Now write three different scenes, each showing the character in the same situation but making a different decision in each scene. The narrative should explain why the character makes a particular choice and what the consequences will be.
When you’re done writing your three scenes, write one sentence for each scene summarizing what the choice says about the character. Does making a different choice fundamentally change the character’s personality?
How do the choices that characters make create conflict? How do their choices resolve conflict? What can a character’s decisions reveal about the character? As an author, how do you decide which choices your characters will make? Are they based on the character or the plot?