Against Their Better Judgment


We've recently touched on what happens when a character makes a decision that surprises the author. Usually, this inconvenient moment is when we'd planned for our protagonist to take the north fork in the road and they go south instead. It just "feels right," and the author stays true to what the character would do… but this murderizes the rest of the plot.

Authors handle this a few different ways. The pantsers usually go with the character and see where it leads. The planners often jam blinders on the character and kick them down the planned path. Both valid strategies, but there is a third option: the miracle of time travel. In other words, back up a few pages.

If the character went south instead of north, there was narrative momentum that made the decision feel natural. Figure out what in the writing shaped the character's decision and start editing there. Drop in the hints, clues and cues to make the north fork feel natural when the character comes to it.

As an exercise, unfortunately, replicating this effort would actually take a workbook worth of time and words. What we can do, however, is work on the headspace of the character when they're faced with a situation that doesn't present an easy decision.

We're offering four different situations where the decisions are damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't. Browse the options, pick one, and let the character decide which option they'd pick first. Then change the character's mind. Add a detail, an angle, something that will make them go against their gut… and make the tough choice.

  • [Character's] child is usually a good kid, but this time, they messed up. The kid is so good, they've banked some good karma, but from the parent's POV [this situation] needs to be addressed. Let 'em off easy or give the tough love?

  • [Character] is friends with Bob, the owner of the corner grocery store who has been struggling to stay in business against the likes of the supermarket down the street. After a pleasant conversation with Bob, [Character] witnesses a transient slip [a more expensive item] into their coat. What do they do?

  • [Character] is halfway down the hill. The battle at Frond's Hilltop is over and it was bloody. Screams and the roar of fire echo off the hillsides as more battles rage on. Do they go south, to moors, where they know their son and grandchildren live? Or do they go north, to where their daughter lives?

  • [Character] is the Captain of the USS Saavik. They've received a distress call from a civilian freighter that has struck a mine in the Neutral Zone. If they attempt to rescue the ship, they'll likely start a war – and the crew of the Saavik will certainly be the first casualties in that war. If they refuse to act, they doom the civilians to certain death. What do they do?

Please share your thoughts – and your story – in the comments below!

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