top of page
  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Making the Worst Possible Decision at Every Opportunity

It’s a staple of writing thrillers that the stakes and the difficulties for the protagonist must keep ratcheting up throughout the story. After all, if the protagonist is faced with a difficulty, comes up with a plan to overcome it, and executes that plan seamlessly, there’s not really that much tension/suspense. Heck, there’s not even much of a plot. There’s a whole raft of things that can be done to thwart the protagonist’s efforts. He can have underestimated the difficulty or the forces arrayed against him. There can be side tasks (e.g., I’ll give you the antidote, when you’ve found my missing child). The proposed solution can have unanticipated complications or risk collateral damage (e.g., he can save the victim, but at the cost of his partner, his country, his soul). Chance can intervene (e.g., who’d have thought that pigeon would swoop in a ruin the kill shot). The protagonist’s best friend can betray him. He can fall for some devious trick set up by the antagonist. People, even mundane passersby, who mean to help, may actually hinder (e.g., the would-be terrorist convinces the gathering crowd she is the victim of assault or stalking). Random, everyday events may intervene (the backing truck blocks pursuit), though be careful of making this occur too often. The protagonist can even make mistakes, particularly if these mistakes arise from a character flaw or other circumstances which enrich the character or the plot. But here’s the thing, you have to be very careful about what mistakes the protagonist makes and how often he makes them. Why? Several reasons. While you want to make your protagonist fallible and, thus, more believable, so that readers can readily relate to him, you don’t want your hero to be an idiot. Nobody respects an idiot and nobody self-identifies with an idiot (the entire Jackass franchise notwithstanding). The more poor decisions your protagonist makes, the stupider the reader thinks he is. Second, you undercut the suspense of the story. The more poor decisions your protagonist makes and manages to survive, the more fantastic ... and, thus, less believable ... the plot becomes. In some cases, upping the ante because of bad decisions of the protagonist can make the entire plot predictable and banal. We’ve all seen the movies and shows (The Following comes to mind, but a variety of bad horror movies will fill the bill) where the viewer/reader knows what is going to happen next because everyone involved makes the worst possible decision in any given circumstance. They go forward without back-up, they don’t bother to let anyone know where they are or where they are going, and they forget what the long-term goal is for some unimportant, short-term advantage. Sure, in some meta-gaming sense, the reader always knows that good will prevail in the end (though, as my readers know, even this is not always the case), but if there is no true sense of peril (the hero being hurt, secondary characters being killed, unthinkable things happening to the protagonist that leave permanent scars, whether physical or psychological), the story becomes less interesting. This is why so many serial stories and, especially TV shows, focus so heavily on the procedural aspects of the hero’s success: The suspense isn’t in whether the hero escapes/solves the crime, it’s all on the clever way he does so, whether that’s the dubious forensic science budget of CSI or unlikely makeshift inventions of McGyver. In addition, easy success undercuts letting the reader play along. If every hare-brained action of the protagonist works, the reader is not encouraged to try to imagine what they would do to solve the hero’s dilemmas as they occur. Many readers not only like to try to figure out the mystery or reveal of a story, they like to try to outsmart both the antagonist and the protagonist as the plot unveils. Finally, guaranteed, cost-free success, in spite of poor decision-making, sucks the moral conscience right out of the story. We like to believe that hard work, determination, and sacrifice for the greater good are important to thwarting evil and saving the day. If the hero doesn’t need wits and grit, if he doesn’t have to take risks and suffer consequences to achieve success, the reader will not feel that the final success is earned. And, while we may not like to have the moral of a story pounded ceaselessly into our heads in a dénouement to a novel, an important part of any character arc is that the protagonist learn something and change somehow in the course of the events of the novel. So much the better if that change is an uplifting and moral one. Easy, automatic success does not engender change of any kind, much less moral change. Yes, it is wise to continually ramp-up the danger and the difficulty for your protagonist at every opportunity, to build suspense, and to build your character’s character by making him make tough choices and endure hardship, pain, and loss. A surprise impediment is a great way to make the hero’s path twist and turn as it gets steeper and steeper to climb. But, having those impediments be the result of stupid decisions by the protagonist, especially on a recurring (or, worse yet, constant) basis, undercuts your character, your plot, and your readership. That’s today’s rant. If you found this interesting, please consider tweeting or sharing the link to my blog with your friends, fellow-writers, and discerning readers. If you are curious as to whether I practice what I preach, you can check out my writing website and buy my books at And, you can always comment on my blogs right here. I’ll also be a panelist this summer at both Origins and GenCon. Hope to see some of you there. Aloha. Don

#text #antagonist #character #characterdevelopment #gencon #hero #mcgyver #origins #plot #suspense #tension #protagonist #thefollowing #thrillers #writing #writers

1 view0 comments
bottom of page