“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
From conversation between Dumbledore and Harry, at the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J. K. Rowling
I recalled this statement a few days ago, while I was reading Hugh Howey’s Wool. In that novel, the protagonist, Juliette, is an extremely talented, strong-willed yet likable mechanic. Half a way through the story she makes an unprecedented choice, which results in an uprising, bloodshed, and more. As the story unfolds, Juliette’s responses and choices become almost super-human. I expected her to crumble under the pressure, but Juliette prevailed and even triumphed. Purged by water and fire, she morphs from an alpha-woman into someone unstoppable and indestructible. Then, at the very end of the book, one glimpses the “old” Juliette.
“Me? Mayor?” Juliette crossed her arms and sat back, painfully, against the chair. She laughed. “You’ve gotta be kidding. I wouldn’t know the first thing about –”
This burst of insecurity doesn’t ring true. And indeed, half a page later:
She set the glass down and lifted her palm for him to stop.
“If we were to do this,” she told them coolly, looking from one of their expectant faces to the other. “If we do it, we do it my way.”
When I finished reading the book, I kept thinking about Juliette’s character and the choices she made. As a reader, I was curious about what motivated these choices, how they reflected her character. Then I started to think like a writer. Did Howey make these choices to showcase the changes Juliette undergoes? And more generally, what is the role that characters’ choices play in a story? Should their choices always feel plausible? Should characters’ choices show their personalities? Do they have to reflect who the character is?
At first, it seemed that the answer is a straightforward “Yes”. But thinking about my favorite stories, I noticed that almost always some characters make important choices that are uncharacteristic, sometimes even against their nature. For example, let’s look at the scene in which Mr. Darcy walks into the room where Elizabeth Bennett was sitting alone.
In an hurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feeling will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed.”
Darcy made his choice, but he proposed against his character, which was governed by pride. Not only the reader, but also Elizabeth are acutely aware of “His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination were dwelt on with a warmth…” (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).
One may say that Dumbledore would be the first to point out that love is an exception, for the choices made by a person in love are not rational. Well, here is a reminder for those who do not remember O. Henry’s A Retrieved Reformation. Ben Price is a hard-nosed detective, in pursuit of a canny safe-cracker. Jimmy Valentine is the safe-cracker, and he had professed that he “wouldn’t touch a dollar of another man’s money now for a million.” Ben had no reason to trust Jimmy’s reformation. He tracks Jimmy, who meanwhile had changed his name to Ralph Spencer and is about to marry a banker’s daughter, Miss Annabel Adams. Let’s see what happens when the two men meet at last:
The Elmore Bank had just put in a new safe and vault. Mr. Adams was very proud of it, and insisted on an inspection by everyone. The vault was a small one, but it had a new, patented door. It fastened with three solid steel bolts thrown simultaneously with a single handle, and had a time-lock. Mr. Adams beamingly explained its workings to Mr. Spencer, who showed a courteous but not too intelligent interest. The two children, May and Agatha, were delighted by the shining metal and funny clock and knobs.
While they were thus engaged Ben Price sauntered in and leaned on his elbow, looking casually inside between the railings. He told the teller that he didn’t want anything; he was just waiting for a man he knew.
Suddenly there was a scream or two from the woman, and a commotion. Unperceived by the elders, May, the nine-year-old-girl, in a spirit of play, has shut Agatha in the vault. She had then shot the bolts and turned the knob of the combination as she had seen Mr. Adams do…
Agatha’s mother, frantic now, beat the door of the vault with her hands. Somebody wildly suggested dynamite. Annabel turned to Jimmy, her large eyes full of anguish, but not yet despairing. To a woman in love nothing seems quite impossible to the powers of the man she worships.
Jimmy Valentine is in love, so one may expect him to sacrifice his freedom. Indeed:
In ten minutes – breaking his own burglarious record – he threw back the bolts and opened the door.
Agatha, almost collapsed, but safe, was gathered into her mother’s arms.
Jimmy Valentine put on his coat, and walked outside the railing toward the front door. As he went he thought he heard a far-away voice that he once knew call “Ralph!” But he never hesitated.
At the door a big man stood somewhat in his way.
“Hello, Ben!” said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. “Got around at last, have you? Well, let’s go…”
Jimmy’s fall is sad, but the reader knows that Jimmy made his choice, and the consequences are clear: Ben Price would do what he came to do, what he had to do. That’s what both Jimmy and the reader expect. O.Henry, however, is not bound by conventions. We believe his storytelling, even when his hard-nosed character makes a different choice.