You make choices every day, from what to have for breakfast onwards. You make choices for your characters too, deciding their height, weight, and dental hygiene.
But giving your characters choices makes them more dynamic, makes them more interesting, and makes for more interesting obstacles to overcome. It’s also a good way to elevate the story if your character is simply reacting at that moment, being dragged along by events. Add a choice or two for them to make, and they become less passive.
Remember that bit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The bit where Indy is dangling from his Father’s hand, stretching to reach for the Holy Grail? There’s a reason that scene has resonance, and there’s a reason it’s there in the first place.
We’ve already seen the consequences of trying to grab that Grail – falling to your death. Now Indy has a choice to make, and that Grail represents the whole of his character arc. It’s the MacGuffin that Indy thinks will give him a connection to his estranged Father, a symbol also of their broken relationship. Indy wants that Grail, but he also wants his Father. To help him make his choice, Henry calls him by his preferred name, making a choice himself to bridge their biggest divide. It’s a good scene, because Indy makes the right choice, the one that answered his true need.
That choice comes at the denouement, but there are plenty of other places where you can give your character a choice. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke has been sent to Dagobah, a wholly reactive move on his part. But when he has the vision of Leia and the others in danger, he makes the choice to go to their rescue, knowing full well IT’S A TRAP. It’s this choice that propels the story into the final act.
The mid-point is another good place to have a character choice. If your character is running from something or someone, here’s the perfect place to have them stop, turn around, and fight back.
One of the most interesting uses of choices can come much earlier though. I’ve talked about giving your character a real want and need, and giving them a choice can really set that up effectively. With a spoiler alert ringing in your ears, there’s a moment early on in Looper when Joe is given the choice between his dream to move to France and saving his friend’s life. It’s a pretty stark choice, and his decision hammers home his real desire.
Try giving them some choices.
It’s up to you.