Critical choice and character agency

The Big Peat

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The points being made here about Skywalker's choice is part of why I made my original post. Ditto kinda Lord of the Rings "Welp, we can sit here and wait for Sauron to beat us, or we can take the one chance we've got".

Does anyone have some good examples of big names where the MC faces critical choices where the choice isn't obvious (or the choice is made for them)? Because, honestly, I feel that HB is worrying a little over nothing here.
 

Brian G Turner

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critical choice
Looking at the sequence, this initially looks like the "Dark Night of the Soul" stage from Blake Snyder's character beats in Save the Cat, which comes up a lot in film. In a W-Diagram it would be the last and biggest dip before the finale and resolution.

In short: the main character reaches their lowest possible point - perhaps even contemplating death - but picks themselves up and makes a clear choice to face whatever adversity has been hindering them.

In Star Wars, in Luke's arc, IMO this is his decision to join the attack on the Death Star, even though it seems a lost cause - but ends up playing a pivotal role in.

In LOTR, it may be when Sam steps up to carry Frodo and the ring, thus showing that noble values such as friendship and loyalty are stronger than selfishness and greed.

Just initial thoughts. :)
 

Stephen Palmer

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This sort of thing makes me hate writing. I just want to tell a story the way I want. Natural storytelling follows some sort of path anyway, right? Why make it overly complicated and dry?
I'm with Mouse on this.
Too much focus on technical stuff.
Last year on my blog I wrote a three-part post about imagination, which people far too rarely talk about...
 

HareBrain

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HB is worrying
I'm not, really. The topic just occurred to me when a little voice in my head suggested that there should be a "proper" critical choice in every scene/chapter. But I was never really persuaded of that, and have now been thoroughly dissuaded.

Too much focus on technical stuff.
Last year on my blog I wrote a three-part post about imagination, which people far too rarely talk about...
I'm interested in how a bicycle works, but that doesn't mean the mechanics distract me when I'm riding through beautiful countryside.

I would love to see a discussion about imagination, though I'm not sure what it would involve. Only one way to find out, though, and that's to start one here.
 

tinkerdan

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Part of character development is the decision process of the character in making choices. Choices happen all the time because they help show the growth or deterioration of the character. A character may in the beginning choose to save the cat. This might help the reader relate to them. In fact, even a villain might demonstrate some character by saving the cat. It's even possible that the defining Critical choice might involve the equivalent of an opposite decision, by having the character decide not to save the cat this time.

All the choices throughout are part of the agency; however I'd say the Critical choice is a bit above and beyond just agency and it is something that acts as a pivotal defining of a change in the character(which could be for better or worse or even something that solidifies their character(they always save the cat, no matter what).

This can happen before the climax or during the climax or even after the climax. It may or may not have something to do with reversals and resolutions. However in most cases it will likely be tied to both.

If you wanted to look at something that has little agency throughout, I'd recommend one I recently finished. Brian W. Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy. I felt that a strong plot point was that few if any characters had agency because they were either under the influence of the Gaia(mother planet) and or the political and religious elements. Most choices were caught up in either a political ideology or a religious fervor and it was almost to a point of annoying that some of the characters would obsess over their inability to fully justify their choices to a point where events around them would make their decision for them while they waffled helplessly.

And then; as in many Hemingway novels, when a character finally demonstrated agency and became fully resolute in their decision--they are wiped from the face of the planet. The only consistent demonstrable agency in the stories were groups of mostly unknown people who worked anonymously in the background in darker corners making life miserable for everyone. They seemed for the most part to survive because their actions managed to assist the Gaia in it's path to keep the beings on the planet in a perpetually benighted state. So in the end even their agency seemed to be in question.

The critical choice seemed to be tied with character arcs rather than story arc and would usually lead to rapid reversal and resolution(being death and dismemberment).
 

HareBrain

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I would love to see a discussion about imagination, though I'm not sure what it would involve. Only one way to find out, though, and that's to start one here.
I've started a thread here on something I've been thinking about, which might cover some aspects of imagination/inspiration.
 

Bagpuss

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The critical choice is what comes from being confronted with the surprise, so in terms of the story of the whole film, the critical choice is the decision to destroy the Death Star (which is the surprise, as you say).
I disagree. I don't think you can analyse Star Wars against the arc you have suggested. Largely, I think, because the story is not written with your analysis tools in mind and, therefore, it doesn't follow them.

The critical choice is not to destroy the Death Star (nor is that desire a surprise in any way). The desire to destroy the Death Star is the motive for the Rebellion to steal the plans to the Death Star before the movie opens and destroying the Death Star is what the Rebellion want to do from the opening credits. They're very consistent in their goal and they get what they want. Under your 8-point analysis, the stasis is the theft of the Death Star plans and Vader's pursuit of Leia in the opening sequence.
 

Bagpuss

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I always find it hard to identify the Critical choice as, for me, Luke (as the MC) does not actually take it.
Luke takes the choice to use the Force, turn off the targeting computer and fire the proton torpedoes at an improbably small vent. That's his only actual choice in the movie. Possibly slightly important. Other than that, Luke's a poster-child for lack of agency. (Otherwise, why didn't he stick around and bury his uncle and aunt?)

The bigger agent is Han Solo. As a character, Solo has a lot more choices. After all, he doesn't have to come back at the end of the first film. He doesn't have to save Luke's ass in the trench. He doesn't have to stick around - ok he wants to, but that's a choice as well and Solo's choices have far more of a feel of agency to them (that the idea that it's this character making the choices rather than the plot).
 

CTRandall

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Does anyone have some good examples of big names where the MC faces critical choices where the choice isn't obvious (or the choice is made for them)? Because, honestly, I feel that HB is worrying a little over nothing here.
Kafka's The Trial might qualify. K.'s critical choice is right at the beginning when he accepts the authority of the nebulous beaurocracy that has charged him with an unnamed offence. The fact that K. never questions his decision is a huge part of what gives the story its absurd quality. Most people would say K. made the wrong choice, or at least was wrong not to change his behaviour as the story progresses.
 

The Big Peat

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Kafka's The Trial might qualify. K.'s critical choice is right at the beginning when he accepts the authority of the nebulous beaurocracy that has charged him with an unnamed offence. The fact that K. never questions his decision is a huge part of what gives the story its absurd quality. Most people would say K. made the wrong choice, or at least was wrong not to change his behaviour as the story progresses.
But surely if the character never questions their authority, no choice was actually made?
 

CTRandall

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You've got a point there and it's fair to say that at the least, Kafka disguises the choice from the reader. In the middle of the book, however, Kafka makes it explicit that the failure is K.'s, that he could have decided at any point to take control (that's how I read the dream-sequence "Before the Law") but instead decided to be a good, upstanding citizen, to follow the rules regardless of how absurd they got.

The result is that K.'s behaviour seems, to most readers, to grow more and more absurd, even as K. desperately tries to demonstrate that he is a paragon of social respectability.
 

Bagpuss

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But surely if the character never questions their authority, no choice was actually made?
There is an argument that a choice not to make a choice is, in itself, a choice. Therefore, you can't get out of it that easily.

(if you don't like the wording then replace the word "choice" with the words: "reasoned decision".) Otherwise, if the character never questions the decision of the author(ity) then the character has not, in fact, made a choice. The character has conformed to a non-choice dictated by the plot and the writer.
 

HareBrain

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Largely, I think, because the story is not written with your analysis tools in mind and, therefore, it doesn't follow them.
That doesn't of itself mean it's not applicable -- neither were fairy stories. It's simple description of how a basic story arc tends to work. But you're right about Star Wars -- it's been so long since I've seen it, I forgot the plot.

I don't think it's wise for any story to be written with it in mind -- that would be stifling. Nor does a story that doesn't easily fit within it necessarily "fail". But it's useful to work out if something is missing.
 

The Big Peat

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I'm not, really. The topic just occurred to me when a little voice in my head suggested that there should be a "proper" critical choice in every scene/chapter. But I was never really persuaded of that, and have now been thoroughly dissuaded.
I guess it depends on how you define "proper critical choice". If you use the Scene and Sequel model suggested by Jim Butcher, you're going to have the character making a decision about what to do next pretty regularly.

I think the thing is what level of choice/decision we're talking - its still a choice if the character only ever considers one choice and everyone can call it, as Bagpuss says.
 

aThenian

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If story is about choice and agency, what does that imply if you want to tell stories about the powerless?

That you can't do it? That you can only do it if you give them some power/autonomy after all - but then you may no longer be portraying their experience accurately?

Was thinking this while watching Roma on Netflix - critically acclaimed move about a domestic worker in Mexico. I'm glad that they gave her central billing - but she did come over as somewhat passive.
 

night_wrtr

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I always find it hard to identify the Critical choice as, for me, Luke (as the MC) does not actually take it.
Luke takes the choice to use the Force, turn off the targeting computer and fire the proton torpedoes at an improbably small vent. That's his only actual choice in the movie.
Isn't a choice taken when he says he wants to learn to use the Force and become a Jedi like his father before him? Which also means that he will join Obi Wan on his mission to deliver the Death Star plans to Bail Organa on Alderaan?
 

Jo Zebedee

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Isn't a choice taken when he says he wants to learn to use the Force and become a Jedi like his father before him? Which also means that he will join Obi Wan on his mission to deliver the Death Star plans to Bail Organa on Alderaan?
There is but that is, I think, more of the trigger for the action than the critical choice, given where it falls in the movie, maybe?
 

Venusian Broon

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Isn't a choice taken when he says he wants to learn to use the Force and become a Jedi like his father before him? Which also means that he will join Obi Wan on his mission to deliver the Death Star plans to Bail Organa on Alderaan?
Surely he does this only after his initial plan of remaining with Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru, farming water for a year and drinking blue milk are quickly curtailed by imperial intervention? And then he really didn't have any choice (but to follow the plot, rather than disappear from it)
 

Phyrebrat

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I'm not, really
Ha! Yes you are, the self-doubt is dripping from your posts...Okay, maybe it's just me conjuring up my own fears about my own exhaustive body of work.

would love to see a discussion about imagination, though I'm not sure what it would involve. Only one way to find out, though, and that's to start one here.
Well, my blog was focused on that, but blogs here have gone the way of the dinosaur, along with all the tips/tricks/points they contained. Not that I am necessarily an authority on creativity, but...RIVERS AND LAKES! ;)

I disagree. I don't think you can analyse Star Wars against the arc you have suggested. Largely, I think, because the story is not written with your analysis tools in mind and, therefore, it doesn't follow them.
I scream in my mind when film beats are compared to book beats. And whilst STC might work for Brian, I spent most my time grimacing, cringing or laughing through the suggstions in that book. If you want to write colour-by-numbers, read Blake Snyder's STC.

Too many posts in Chrons are focused on this science of writing, as if members think it'll lead to the next big thing, if they follow a recipe. Now, I'm all for working on craft of our art, but these kind of books take it too far, like it is a science (and excuse my cynicism, but has Blake Snyder been behind any other vehicle than Legally Blonde and that other screenplay he bangs on about in STC?).

Before you became a writer, how many times would you have read a book and decried a character's lack of agency? These terms, whilst helpful, come up so much in the writer's world that they can become obsessed upon - by us, not the reader. You can say, oh yes, well if we didn't, then readers would definitely notice but I think that's nonsense. Yes, it can be important, but I'd much rather read books with creative wordplay, a finely turned phrase, even a perfect new word(!), than something with a cast-iron plot, tick-boxed character developments, and other rules of thumb. A bloated, wordy Victorian novel, or a Dan Brown page turner? I know what I'd choose.

If you see writing as some kind of equation, you're wasting your time. That's not how art happens. The skill - or rather success - of a writer is not following every old hackneyed rule, and mass-producing, but creating from their heart.

Finally, these things can often be sorted out in the edit - I know that from personal experience where massive swathes of text had to be changed or deleted because of inconsistent character choices.

Anyway, I'm sorry for the OT swerve to this post, as it's not commenting on character agency (it's a different kettle of fish in horror where often a character's lack-of-agency is important), but there are far
more articulate people who have posted upthread who can advise on that. The only thing I can think of to add is that you must see your character as of his/her time. What goes for agency in the past is a socio-political concept of that time, or at least informed by socio-poitical morés. The time you're writing in (not the book's setting) is valid - our present day values are constantly evolving. I just wanted to give my take on slavishly following graphs and templates, which I believe are helpful only to us from a comparative view once you understand the basics of character development/depth.

A few years ago I joined Chrons with my 'this-is-gonna-kick-arse' story but not knowing how to deliver it, how to package it up. The advice I got was great and although I've gone along with a large part of the techincal suggestions, I also ignored lots of them - not because I didn't think they were 'right', but because I just didn't want to write that way. You have to write to enjoy yourself. My point is that we can often overthink ourselves into stasis.

It's therefore important to write the way that makes you happy - people have complained about my italics, my overly-frequent use of made-up doggerel etc in my stories, but I enjoy doing it that way, it also makes writing easier (perversely) and I won't change it unless it would be at odds with my story.

Okay, I've probably banged on enough about my pet peeve so I'm going to send this. :)

pH

(I've used you/your throughout here and I want to clarify that's 'one' not you, @HareBrain !)
 
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night_wrtr

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There is but that is, I think, more of the trigger for the action than the critical choice, given where it falls in the movie, maybe?
Surely he does this only after his initial plan of remaining with Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru, farming water for a year and drinking blue milk are quickly curtailed by imperial intervention? And then he really didn't have any choice (but to follow the plot, rather than disappear from it)
At the same time, the only thing keeping him a moisture farmer was Uncle Owen. All his friends joined the imperial academy to become a pilot, which is what he wanted. He could have easily decided that was the path to take, but his choice fell to the greater good to become something more. Feels like a vital choice to me. One putting him on the side of the empire, the other a rebel.
 
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