Options for Our Characters

This weekend, my birthday rolled around. Cathy got me this sit-to-stand desk, so I can work standing up if I choose, or I can lower the desk and sit down. I very much appreciate this gift because it should help with my recurring sciatic nerve pain that I often aggravate with long periods of staying seated. Such are the practical gifts that say “I love you” as we age.

From time to time, I whine a bit about aging, and Cathy always says, “It beats the alternative.” Wise woman, that Cathy. She has a way of putting everything into the proper perspective. She’s the reasoned balance to my tendency to complain. A friend once told me I could find the dark lining in any silver cloud, and she was right. I won’t go into the reasons here but suffice it to say my family’s history left me with the fear that something dark might be lurking just around the corner. I fight every day to overcome my mistrust of the future. That’s why it’s important that Cathy gives me the straight truth about how fortunate I am. I’m still above ground and in reasonably good health. I was able to run four miles yesterday. I enjoyed dinner out with Cathy last night and then a gathering of close neighbors for cake. I know I’m truly blessed even at the age of sixty-six. I’ve been telling people that six plus six equals twelve, which is closer to my true age. Indeed, there are times when I’m as goofy as I was when I was twelve and eager for my adult life to begin. The age of sixty-six—or heck even thirty-six or forty-six—seemed ancient to me then. I thought it would be forever before I’d have to worry about growing old, and now it seems I’ve become a senior citizen in the blink of an eye.

We all have choices when it comes to deciding how to feel about the parts of our lives that challenge us. We can kvetch, we can fall into despair, we can celebrate our blessings, we can do all of the above. The point I’m trying to make is the fact that for the most part we always have options, which brings me to how this might help our writing. We should never forget to give our main characters options from which to choose. We should never deny those characters their agency. We should never disregard the fates they create through their own actions and words.

Beginning writers have a tendency to put their characters into awful situations beyond their control. Natural disasters, serious illnesses, wars, plagues, etc. These characters are victims of outside forces. The writers have taken their agency from them, and consequently, the characters have no room to contribute to their own destinies. They end up being acted upon rather than acting.

When our main characters are in troubles of their own creation, the options for further action increase. They might do this or that. They might do a number of different things to try to get themselves out of trouble. They should have clearly defined options, so they can make conscious choices rather than letting choices be made for them. In this way, we writers are like parents. We put our characters—our “children”—onto the page, and we know we can’t protect them from their own poor judgment. We shouldn’t try. We have to let them create lives for themselves through the options they discard and the ones that they accept.



  1. Steve Rhinelander on October 4, 2021 at 10:49 am


    First, Happy Birthday!

    Second, I think you raise a very interesting point about writing and creating characters. I understand your point as noting that a story will be more interesting if the characters must choose among a number of options to get out of some difficult situation. I think that makes a lot of sense.

    However, I am not sure I understand the distinction between situations beyond a character’s control vs. situations resulting from the character’s actions. You mentioned natural disaster as a type of situation beyond a character’s control. While the disaster is outside the character’s control, the character’s reaction to the disaster is not. For example, a victim of a hurricane can choose to try to rebuild his or her old life, move to a new city and start a new life, or succumb to his or her despair. That person has a choice, even though the hurricane was beyond his or her control.

    On the other hand, if I remember the Shakespeare play “Macbeth” correctly, Macbeth chooses to kill the old king, and that choice triggers a series of events that inevitably leads to his downfall. Even though his troubles are of his own creation, he has no flexibility or room for choice in dealing with those troubles.

    I realize that I may be misunderstanding or overlooking something in your discussion. In any case, I would welcome your further thoughts.

    Thank you for your blog post.


    • Lee Martin on October 5, 2021 at 11:33 am

      Thanks, Steve! And thank you, too, for your comments. I should have been clearer in my post. The sort of outside the character’s control trouble I’m referring to is the sort that resolves a story. If a natural disaster, for example, brings resolution to the narrative, then the main character has had no hand in it and it seems imposed rather than organic. If a character has to respond to a natural disaster, then that’s another thing. In that case, the character’s responsive action is indeed creating the narrative. I hope this helps.

  2. Steve Rhinelander on October 7, 2021 at 10:28 am


    Yes, your explanation is very helpful, and now I understand and agree with the point you made in your original post. Thank you very much for clearing this up for me.


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