Character Choice That Defines Your Protagonist

One of my favorite things to talk about these days is building complex characters, and a lot of the time, that comes down to character choice. One of those ways is through character buy-in. It’s the idea of committing to the story during an inciting incident when your character decides, “Screw it, I’m all in, let’s see where this crazy adventure takes me.” This moment is very important, especially in fantasy, action, paranormal, etc. stories where there’s a certain amount of disbelief or world-building that needs to be overcome. I mean, Percy Jackson didn’t exactly imagine his life as a demi-god when he was just starting out. It took him a little while to get on the roller coaster and strap himself into the seat. But if he didn’t make that strong character choice, it’s likely he wouldn’t have launched a multimillion-dollar franchise.

character choice
Avoid the passive protagonist sand trap, make a strong character choice, and save the flip-flopping for the beach!

You Need Solid Layers In Your Story to Make Character Choice Compelling

Fiction is built, ideally, in layers. We have the basic foundation of a story, then we layer something on as the plot advances or a relationship changes, then we layer the next development onto what exists already, then the next, then the next. It’s important, then, to solidify each layer before building on the next. We are, in essence, creating something out of nothing when writing fiction.

The world doesn’t exist until you establish it. The relationships don’t come to life until you define them. The plot doesn’t mean anything until we combine the events with your protagonist’s objectives, motivations, and development. Without these incredibly important layers in place, you risk helming your novel with a passive protagonist who will not send the message to readers that they can make a difficult character choice when called to adventure.

Flip-Flopping Weakens the Layers

Done right, this delicious fiction layer cake will be very satisfying. But the whole thing tends to fall apart if each layer isn’t solidified properly before the next one is poured on. An instance where I notice this issue is when a character flip-flops in their opinions about a plot point or other character. It’s one thing to consider one issue with multiple layers: that’s called building complex characters. But when a passive protagonist can’t decide whether they can trust Character A, and this goes on for five chapters, I say it’s flip-flopping. If they aren’t able to make a decision or commit to their own feelings, that makes them passive and frozen in the story. They can’t truly move on from being a passive protagonist until they stop flip-flopping and make a strong, definitive character choice. (Obviously, they can then change their minds when new information comes to light, but this should be a logical progression.)

Complexity vs Flip-Flopping and Character Choice

An Example of Complexity

Let’s extrapolate on this a bit more. The protagonist wants to trust A, but A just told one of their secrets to the antagonist. Your character is really pissed off at A, but they also believe that A is the only person who can help them along in the story. So, with some nagging doubt in their mind, they decide to trust A because the benefits outweigh the risks.

What I’ve described above is a complex situation, and it’s what makes a character choice that the protagonist might make in this situation tense and interesting. The trust is established, but there’s something going on below the surface that colors it a certain shade of wariness. The most important part, though, is that the protagonist has decided to commit to trusting A. They have bought in.

An Example of Flip-Flopping

Compare this to the same scenario. And let’s say the decision is made in chapter one to trust A. But then in chapter two, the protagonist avoids A’s phone calls, saying “I just can’t trust them.” In chapter three, your character crawls back to A to ask a favor, acting for all the world like there’s an intact relationship. In chapter four, the protagonist spurns A’s friendly advances, vowing to go through the rest of the plot alone.

But didn’t we say we trusted A in chapter one? Why does the tide keep shifting? To go back and forth on a commitment sends the reader for a loop. “I thought we agreed on A, and now the rules have been rewritten!” I’ll say as I’m reading a manuscript where flip-flopping is an issue.

Flip-Flopping Isn’t An Action, But Character Choice Is

The bigger problem here is that flip-flopping isn’t an action. Taking one step forward and one step back doesn’t advance either the plot or the relationship (in this case, the protagonist and A). There’s a slight distinction between committing to conflicting viewpoints about a character because of advances in the plot. For example, the protagonist can fully buy-in to trusting A, and only after some deep betrayal will they make up their mind to forge ahead alone. That’s building complex characters, and it’s the evolution of a fraught relationship.

But the key to what makes a character interesting is commitment. Buying in. Making a character choice. Without it, the protagonist changes their mind without investing, resulting in flip-flopping and leaving the plot and relationship development stuck.

Commit to Character Choice!

Some writers think that flip-flopping is complex, and in some ways, a safer answer to “what makes a character interesting?” Their characters have angst, but they don’t actually go down any wrong paths. They just keep changing their minds. I don’t find that this is beneficial in the long run, in fact, it’s maybe even a bit shallow. Instead of flip-flopping, commit! Buy in!

Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you build complex characters and engineering character choice and commitment for your protagonist.

8 Replies to “Character Choice That Defines Your Protagonist”

  1. Christina C. says:

    I think the crucial part is what you said, about changing your mind after taking the wrong path – that makes sense, to go it alone after betrayal. The character is feeling angry, betrayed, even stupid. And it’s a learning opportunity for character growth.

    I also think interiority is important when a character is committed to character A, for example, but still doesn’t trust fully. Interiority is key to showing how yes, they’re working with A, but I’m still going to protect myself, maybe by keeping some info secret. It’s a question of strategy in this case, and interiority really shows it.

    Awesome post, thank you 🙂

  2. With all due respect, I do not agree with this article – at all. Do you never have doubts in real life? Realistic characters do flip-flop a lot because REAL PEOPLE are often usure what to do. In your very example, it would be absolutely believable for the main character to trust A in instance 1 and to distrust him in instance 2, because he’s undecided and has an inner fight with himself. Very few people have the ability of always committing to their decisions. Of course you have to further the plot, but characters overthinking their decisions is essentially just two things: Realistic and believable.

    1. Mary Kole says:

      Totally valid point, but this refers to long-term over the course of a manuscript. Generally, a reader is more able to relate to a character who is able to eventually make a decision and then change according to that decision, rather than arbitrarily changing their mind. Once a decision is anchored in a turning point (once their inner argument leads them to some kind of conclusion), the character grows and there’s forward momentum. Flip-flopping without landing somewhere keeps a character stuck and makes for inconsistent objective and motivation moving through the story, which keeps characters from being proactive toward whatever goal their decision resulted in. But we are welcome to agree to disagree!

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