What Constitutes the Essence of a Character’s Choice

Choices constitute one of the most important elements of fiction. They add drama and tension, thus forcing the reader to anticipate the resolution and consequences of the decisions made by the characters. Not only do choices drive the narrative, but they also determine the dynamics of the story. The quality of the characters’ decisions directly influences how much attention is given to the plot by the readers. Sometimes, the reason why writers fail to appeal to the readers lies in the lack of meaningful characters’ choices. Understanding what constitutes the essence of a character’s choice is essential in ascertaining the most effective ways of engaging the audience and developing the narrative.

Choices are important because they showcase the personality traits, features, and unique characteristics of the characters. If fictional people do not make any decisions, they remain blank and ultimately unengaging. However, if a character is forced into a position when they have to make a choice, they become immensely appealing. The reason for such discrepancy lies in the absence or presence of character development (Kleemans et al. 18). When a fictional person changes, grows and learns from the story’s challenges, the readers can sympathize with them. If no development transpires, the author will most likely fail to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Characters’ decisions are a way to showcase them as living beings who are prone to change.

Choices themselves are the responses of characters to the emergence of crises. Each fictional person has a set of qualities, which define their behavior. When a conflict arises, the characters either change or resist the change. In either case, the author has to accentuate how much a particular situation affected the characters, otherwise, their choices are rendered meaningless (Lillie et al. 1). Therefore, the narrative should emphasize the severity of the situation. In other words, the reader should see the need for the character’s choice, its implications, and its consequences.

It is possible to see how famous authors create memorable characters by having them make difficult choices. The well-known work of Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment,” is built around the choices of its protagonist Raskolnikov. His decision to murder a pawnbroker leads to moral anguish, which ultimately results in his disgust with himself and imprisonment. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe portrays a distressed and repentant murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Finally, Robert Lewis Stevenson bases the entire narrative of “Treasure Island” around the characters who value greed and choose money as the sole purpose of their lives. In all cases, the choices of characters are believable and relatable.

However, there is a difference between the author’s meaning and the readers’ interpretation. It is not uncommon for the audience to receive a drastically different message from the one the author intended. Graff and Birkenstein dedicate an entire chapter to the importance of summaries. They argue that “writing a good summary means not just representing an author’s view accurately, but doing so in a way that fits what you want to say, the larger point you want to make” (Graff and Birkenstein 37). When applied to the characters’ choices, it means that an author should summarize their decisions in an unbiased and engaging manner.

The problem of the dissonance between the reader and the writer can be resolved with an appropriate meta-commentary. Graff and Birkenstein write that “no matter how clear and precise your writing is, readers can still fail to understand it in any number of ways” (133). This possibility becomes especially important when characters’ choices are concerned. Although fictional people are created, they act as living beings with their own opinions in the story. Their intentions and reasons for making a specific decision can be obvious to the writer while being completely unknown to the audience. This is why the writer must enhance the narrative with meta-commentary – it will facilitate the transition of meaning and ideas from the creator to the consumers.

From my experience, the most influential work in terms of characters’ choices and their portrayal is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton. The story is built around two ladies meeting with their daughters and being reminiscent of past events. This setup allows the writer to explore the implications of the characters’ choices. Although Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley are girlfriends, it is evident that there is a certain animosity between them. It is seen via Wharton’s use of meta-commentary, which manifests in the ladies’ thoughts, which accompany the conversation. Examples include the thought by Mrs. Ansley “Grace Ansley was always old-fashioned” (Wharton 2) and Mrs. Slade’s similar annoyance “She can knit in the face of this! How like her…” (Wharton 5). Using the characters’ thoughts, Wharton accentuates their personalities and real intentions.

The crisis in this story reaches its peak when Mrs. Slade reveals her secret. She states that she had forged a letter claiming that it was from her lover Delphin. She wanted Mrs. Ansley to spend time freezing on the street while waiting for Delphin. However, Mrs. Ansley reveals that Delphin came because she had sent a letter to him beforehand. At this point, Mrs. Ansley states that she feels sorry for Mrs. Slade, who fails to understand why. Mrs. Slade believes that she had everything, including Delphin who is now her husband, while Mrs. Ansley had nothing. To which Mrs. Ansley responds with a memorable phrase “I had Barbara” (Wharton 11). Once again, this is the point of possible misunderstanding between the reader and the author. Yet, due to the extensive meta-commentary used over the length of this short story, the audience realizes that what Mrs. Ansley means is that Barbara is Delphin’s daughter.

This short story is an example of the effective use of characters’ choices. Mrs. Slade is a deceptive and manipulative woman who wanted to eliminate competition. Yet, her decision to coy Mrs. Ansley into a possible illness due to a night cold ultimately backfired. Mrs. Slade thought that she had won the game and got married to Delphin. However, in reality, she was the one who cheated as Delphin impregnated Mrs. Ansley. This twist showcased the consequences of Mrs. Slade’s decision to engage in trickery.

Altogether, there are two essential components to a character’s choice. First, it has to arise from a specific conflict. Second, the audience should be aware of the consequences of a particular decision. At the same time, the author needs to ensure that the audience receives the message correctly. It can be accomplished via summarizing and meta-commentary. Wharton’s “Roman Fever” exemplifies the efficient use of characters’ choices and the meta-commentary used to convey the real message. Combined with an appropriate narrative explanation of the urgency of the crisis, meta-commentary makes characters’ choices logical, relatable, and easy to understand.


Graff, Gerald and Birkenstein, Cathy. They Say / I Say. 4th ed., W.W. Norton & Company. 2018.

Lillie, Helen M., et al. “Does It Matter if a Story Character Lives or Dies?: A Message Experiment Comparing Survivor and Death Narratives.” Psychology & Health, 2021, pp. 1-22.

Kleemans, Mariska, et al. “Explaining the Role of Character Development in the Evaluation of Morally Ambiguous Characters in Entertainment Media.” Poetics, vol. 60, 2017, pp. 16-28.

Wharton, E. Roman Fever. Cynthia Griffin Wolff. 1934.

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