Choices and Crises Show True Character

Today I welcome our guest blogger, Becca Puglisi, to TKZ. Becca is an instructor and author specializing in character-building strategies for writers. Enjoy her tips and advice.


I’ve recently become addicted to Showtime’s Sons of Anarchy. Thanks to Netflix, I was able to watch the first four seasons in an becca1obscenely short period of time. One of the things that makes the show so compelling is the sheer amount of pressure that the characters are under. It honestly never lets up, and, against all odds, it keeps getting worse.

One of the most interesting characters is the protagonist’s mother, Gemma. She’s incredibly flawed, but she has great strength, too. I find myself rooting for her despite her seeming determination to train wreck her own life and everyone else’s in the vicinity. This makes me wonder: how do the writers present such a complex character so believably? I mean, how can a woman be controlling and submissive, manipulative and nurturing, loyal and selfish—and all of that come through to the audience without it being contradictory or off-putting? In thinking about how to write complicated characters well, I’ve realized that crises and choices are hugely important.

Choices usually come with an element of time. The character is able to slow down, think things through. This is invaluable in a story setting, where the reader is privy to the character’s thoughts, because thoughts reveal truth. Characters, like real people, are usually not 100% honest with others when it comes to personality. They hide flaws, disguise them as strengths, and mask unwanted traits with more desirable ones in an effort to mislead. But a character’s thoughts are unvarnished. This is where the character can be her true self. Through the internal dialogue that accompanies a difficult decision, readers will see what the character truly values, what she wants, what she fears. This is one reason that choices provide an excellent opportunity to show true character.

Another benefit is that readers are able to see and evaluate how the character eventually comes to his decision. Does he base it on morality or ethics? If he’s uncertain, who is able to sway him, and why? Does fear drive him, or insecurity, or some other weakness? Does he ultimately do what’s right, or what’s easy, or what other people expect him to do? If you want to reveal your hero’s true personality, give him a difficult choice and some time to mull it over, and readers will be able to see who he is at his core.

Crises are equally beneficial, but for a different reason. When a character is thrust into a critical event that requires immediate attention, there’s no time to think. In a crisis situation, he’s forced to respond in a knee-jerk fashion, without dissembling. He just reacts. In doing so, he reveals his true self. I love how Stephen King does this with his villain in The Dead Zone. Presidential candidate Stillson is a cruel, emotionally unbalanced individual, but, like many politicians, he has the public snowed. Then, during an assassination attempt, he snatches a young child and uses him as a human shield. A journalist catches Stillson’s instinctive response on camera, revealing him as the self-serving coward that he always has been.

The beautiful thing about crises is that while they work quite well at the time of the climax, they can be utilized as effectively at any point in the story.

So if you’ve got a multi-faceted character whose real personality you’d like to reveal, consider giving him a tough decision or throwing him into a crisis situation. Then sit back and watch his true colors bleed.


Thank you, Joe, for inviting me to post at The Kill Zone today. As a special thanks for the warm welcome, I’d like to give away a PDF copy of my book, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. Just leave a comment to enter for a chance to win. The giveaway runs through December 13th, after which time I’ll pick a winner. Best of luck!

Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s WHW-Logo1-150x150Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.

41 thoughts on “Choices and Crises Show True Character

  1. Hi Becca,
    Thanks for an entertaining and informative post. And thanks to Joe for posting it (say, man, are we relatives?–probably not, because Moore is almost as common as Smith, which is why I should have used a pseudonym, I guess).
    When I review a fiction work, plot and characterization are the first two things I look for (on the second read–the first time through, I just read as a casual reader). Many authors emphasize one over the other, but I believe their nexus follows the Goldilocks Principle. That said, I can excuse a few typos and grammatical errors if these two elements are well done and the writer tells a great story.
    Of course, I try to put all these ideas into my own writing as well.

    • Steve, I agree that plot and character are hugely important in my decision to stick with a story. Of course, reading it and writing it are two different things 😉

    • Sonja, Crises are fairly straightforward because they tend to be life-altering and often are immediate. For choices, it’s simple enough to just look for places in your stories where decisions need to be made. They can be monumental choices or simple ones like whether to tell the truth or lie. Best of luck!

  2. Becca,
    Great post. I’ve read through it three times. Like all great advice, I already know it, but it takes a good teacher to put it into words I can translate into better writing.

    • Oh, Brian, you made my day. In my former life I was a teacher, but it’s been 8 years since I’ve been in the classroom. It makes me happy to know that I’m able to use those skills in a new way. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Becca, I especially like your point of putting the character in a position where she needs to react and using that inflection point to both reveal character and force the plot forward.


    • I’m glad that resonated, Paul. I know this strikes me, particularly when I’m watching a TV show or movie; something happens where the character has to make a split second decision, and it so often reveals something about their character. And if it ends up shocking or surprising me, all the better!

  4. Excellent post, Becca! Great advice here, and so well-expressed! And welcome to The Kill Zone! What a coincidence that I’m over at your blog, Writers Helping Writers, today, talking about character descriptions that intrigue. (Drop over, people – hint, hint! 😉 )

  5. Thank you for such a great post, Becca! I am a novice learning how to bring out the secrets of the characters that are hidden, through their actions. This has given me a few ideas for my antagonist. I appreciate the tips!

  6. Dear Becca:
    Thank you for an excellent article on character. I found it to be a great learning experience for relatively new writers like myself.
    Best wishes,

  7. Having been in my fair share of tenser than average situations I can say that real life proves your point Becca. Capturing that in our characters definitely makes them real.

  8. Interesting and useful advice, Becca…and more importantly, tips that aren’t often seen in advice articles. I also have a WIP that I’m struggling with. It will be my second mystery from a small publisher and I find I’m a bit afraid of it…Your ideas will help me sow ambiguities and depth in my key characters. Thanks!

  9. Thanks for your great post, Becca. I like those “moment of truth” moments. Hmm. Didn’t intend for it to sound quite like that. Anyway, in a big hurry and the hour is getting late. I’ve seen and been in a few. Easy to be surprised by what some people end up doing, including myself. Especially when you choke. You’re not supposed to choke. I’m not supposed to choke. And I just felt so looow down. I always say, “You may not have choked…yet.” It’s humbling and it makes you wiser and your expectations more realistic. Which leads to the choices. They’re always there, and you always choose. There’s no opting out, really. So serious choices, place the actor right on that ole spot again. There is so much “juice” in what you described, and it is our (the writer’s) job to find it and to SHOW it to the reader. No easy task.

    Thanks for your contribution. Hope I’m not too late for the contest ;0

    • Nope, you’re in the running :). And you’re so right about there always being a choice. This is a mistake I’m working to overcome in my own writing. Sometimes when I’m afraid to really put my character into the thick of it, I compromise and let her not choose. And the pace goes snail-like and readers lose interest. They’ve got to choose, one way or the other, to keep the story moving forward.

  10. Thanks for a great post, Becca. I want to point out that crises are useful in another way. It’s not just how the character reacts, it’s how everyone around her reacts as well — kind of offering an x-ray into the collective human condition.

    • This is a good point. The group scenario can also be useful for characterization in that the reader can learn about the character by examining the group’s response. What a good friend or lover expects of the hero is often a good indicator of his true character.

  11. Superb, nothing makes me drop a book faster than flat characters, including the dreaded Mary Sues and big, strong, square-jawed, perpetual heroes. Mine are developing all sorts of tics. She is obsessive, it turns out he has a disastrous history with women (and not just because he is always doing hero-stuff, his chick-picker is just broken, until he meets the heroine of course.) Constant conflict.

  12. This is so good. Thank you Becca for the great character tips. Upon first read-through of my first WIP I realized I needed to bring out the inner thought life much more. It should be easy since we all have one of our own, right? It’s back to work for me!

    • Ugh. For me, thoughts are hard. I always put too much in, beating the reader over the head with what the character wants and feels. There’s definitely a balancing act there :).

  13. If the story allows, I’ve been known to heap both choices and a crisis on my MC all in a short time period to overwhelm them. It might not make it through final edit, but I learn a lot about my character that way. 🙂

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