Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Story In The Choice

In my quest to be come a successful novelist (and by successful I mean at a level where penning works of fiction is all that I do for a living) I've devoted a great deal of time and effort over the years to studying the works of others. Mostly I've been looking at how good authors build story lines and deal with character development. Sometimes I also look at the root of a story, at what the author's trying to say and how that message has affected his writing.

The great thing about the written word, and novels in particular, is that every now and then you come across a gem of a line that really strikes to the core of what the tale is about. I found one such line in my reading last night. The joy of reading on my Kindle is that I can now mark these gems and come back to them later. This one goes a little something like this:
"You know as well as I, Jean-Luc, that in times of crisis, difficult choices have to be made by good people willing to take on the burden, even if means damning themselves in the process."
You may guess that it comes from a Star Trek novel and while those novels tend to be written strictly for entertainment purposes there does tend to be a great deal of philosophical meandering hidden in them. Regardless of the source, I believe that this statement is meandering in the direction of attempting to define the role of heroes in literature from a writer's perspective.

Over the course of the past two years I've really been making an effort to look at my own writing and compare it truthfully and honestly with others that I've studied. One thing I've learned, and that this quotation brings to mind, is that it's not so much the act that makes the character heroic, but the choice.

After all, isn't the choice to serve one side or the other all that separates the heroes from the villains? There is no drama in knowing that your hero is going to save the day. Sure, we all suspect that he will. Who out there really thinks that, when presented the choice, that the main character is going to choose the darkness over the light and turn out to be a bad guy anyway?

I believe that the drama in every hero and heroic action is in the sacrifice the hero chooses to make. The decision to act heroically shouldn't be easily made, I think. It should be something that comes with a heavy price, with obvious and hidden consequences that the character should have to deal with.

In my career I've written epic fantasy and literary fiction and now I'm trying my hand at young adult fantasy and a mystery novel. To me, there is just something appealing about the fate of the world coming down to a choice that one man doesn't want to make. There's also something appealing about one man changing the fate of nations just because he's trying follow the demands of his conscience and for no other reason but the fact that he can sleep at night.

But in all the novels I've read, I've learned that the heroes I most admire and whose stories I'm interested in face choices like this. They don't want to be heroes. They don't ask to be heroes, but for whatever reason they choose to be heroes

In that choice, and in whatever sacrifice it demands, lies the story.


  1. I think it would be true for all of us that if it came time to choose to sacrifice thing/people/lives we hold dear for the greater good that it would be a very very difficult decision. I don't fault the people who instead choose to live with blinders on. I truly believe that ignorance is bliss in so many instances.

    For a novel to be believable (and therefore immersible), I think I really need to believe that the hero might choose another path.

  2. I agree. It's hard to counter the expectation that the hero will choose the other path, but I think it at least has to be feasible and very tempting.