Every narrative decision counts in life and in writing.
Controlling the Narrative
Life is made up of an endless string of choices, consequences, and rewards. From the moment you wake up, there are a handful of decisions at your fingertips. Do you hit snooze and go back to sleep? Or do you jump right out of bed and start the day?
The same goes for when you’re developing characters in a book. You have to make decisions for them, but not always choose what you would do in your own life. Know these characters and understand what they would do specifically. You can’t choose without reason, as every action leads to a new decision that can control the day your character has, and the entire narrative of the story.
Let’s explore this idea and understand why every decision matters.
The First Decision
I’m going to use a simple example of waking up in the morning because a majority of you will relate to this (I hope!). Let’s call your character Olivia, but you can call them whatever you want. You have a CHOICE.
Olivia wakes up from her alarm and she’s super tired. What are her choices?
- Hit the snooze button and wake up whenever.
- Roll out of bed and start the day.
- Lay in bed awake and play on her phone.
These choices are a few examples of many different routes she can take. She might get out of bed for a snack, then hop back in. The point I’m making is that every choice comes with a consequence and a reward. What your character chooses depends on their values, opinions, and personality. If the first decision they make doesn’t align with all the other decisions, there has to be a reason for it, whether it be character development or an outside force compelling them. Everything must have a reason.
Getting back on track, let’s look at the consequences and rewards of each action.
Hit the snooze button and wake up whenever.
The consequences of this is that she could be late for work or an important meeting. This also delays all the plans she may have had for the day. The reward, of course, is that she gets to sleep longer and feel more rested.
If she chooses this, what’s her reasoning? She may have had a late night last night, or is totally hungover. She could be feeling down because of a breakup or getting fired. Or maybe she’s lazy and likes to hit snooze three times before she starts her makeup routine.
Whenever you’re developing a character, you have to ask yourself: What would Olivia do and why? This example may seem irrelevant, but this can give way to understanding Olivia’s personality traits and how she makes decisions on a daily basis.
Roll out of bed and start the day.
The consequences to this is that she’s still tired and she might make some mistakes because of it. A reward is that she stays on schedule and gets a proper start to the day.
If punctuality is not that important to her, she may not make this decision. She may ponder it for a while, but if she’d rather stay wrapped in the coziness of her blanket, she’ll stay put. She may not even be in a rush and forgot to turn her alarm off. That happened to my sister all the time… it can get annoying when she’s not home to turn it off!
Lay in bed awake and play on the phone.
The consequences for this is that she may run late, but at least she’s not completely falling asleep. The reward is that she gets some time to herself before she has to start the day and own up to her responsibilities.
Olivia may have kids, so alone time before she’s fully awake may be crucial for her. This may also give her the feeling that she doesn’t have to rush and she can slowly get out of bed before she goes to make pancakes for the kids.
Understand the Goals
Knowing what your characters value can lead to you understanding their goals. Why do they make their decisions and what are they looking to get out of it? Don’t make decisions willy-nilly, unless your character is care-free and makes split decisions without thinking about the consequences. Every single decision you and your characters make counts. It opens up a whole new set of choices, and depending on your first choice, the next choices will be different.
Control the narrative to the best of your ability, but sometimes you have to let the characters take the reins. Know where you want to take the character and give reasons for everything they do. Even if the choice is as trivial as swiping pennies out of a fountain out of boredom, there’s still a reason. It also shows the character’s not-so-great personality, following the classic advice for all writers “show don’t tell.”
Thank you for reading this! How do you and your characters make decisions and control narrative? Share in the comments!
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