We face two critical Crisis kinds of decisions in our lives.
These decisions define who we are as human beings. We do not live in an evil/good, joy/misery, sated/starving kind of world. Never have. Never will. Because we don’t—we always fall on a spectrum within the confines of each of these values—we rely on stories to help us figure out how to choose between two bad choices or two irreconcilably good choices.
These two qualities of dilemma that define us flesh and blood human beings also define characters.
When you are considering how best to create the appropriate Crisis question for your character, think in terms of the best bad choice or a choice between irreconcilable goods.
What do I mean by “The Best Bad Choice?” Here are two examples, one from the made up world and one from real life.
You’ve seen the movie Rocky? If you haven’t it’s a very simple set up. The lead character of the movie is a Philadelphia mook named Rocky Balboa, a boxer with a lot of heart but a rapidly fading twinkle of talent. At the beginning of Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay, Rocky’s at that place we can all appreciate. He’s accepted his station in life. He makes enough scratch from the local black hand as an enforcer to live the way he sees himself deserving to live . . . in a flop house with a sweat and bloodstained mattress propped on cinderblocks with two cans left of a six pack of beer and half eaten slab of processed meat in the fridge.
Rocky still gets in the ring and even sometimes wins, but he’s really just . . . as my father used to say “getting Monday into Tuesday . . . Tuesday into Wednesday . . . and so on.” Stallone lets us soak up this sad life for a good chunk of pages before he gives us all what we know is coming. The inciting incident of the Performance Genre in every boxing novel/movie/short story is the opportunity for THE BIG FIGHT. Rocky gets picked to fight the heavyweight champion of the world.
Not because he earned it, but because of his silly pugilistic moniker . . . The Italian Stallion. This is an example of a coincidental inciting incident, like winning the lottery.
The chance to fight the big fight is what we all say we want, isn’t it?
If Random House just took my novel on as a lark . . . they wouldn’t even have to give me an advance . . . I’d bust my butt, promote it like Hell and make it a success . . . I’d show them how wrong they are to dismiss my work . . .
We say to ourselves that given a lock, an opportunity, we’d be our best selves and kick some serious ass.
Would we though?
Stallone knew that giving his fictional character the chance that we all want would seriously invest us in Rocky’s life. Even a ballet dancer or billionaire would relate to this guy.
So where does the Best Bad Choice come in here? Rocky has no bad choice right? The Gods have intervened and given him something he always dreamed of . . . what could be bad about that?
Stallone has Rocky explain his situation to the arthritic, pockmarked old Irish gym rat played by Burgess Meredith, a man who has come to see Rocky to ask for the shot to train him. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with archetypes/stereotypes if you do them well (specificity please) . . . and who doesn’t love the old battle-scared sensei? Even though Meredith’s “Mick” shamed Rocky by taking away his locker at the gym, Rocky knows that he did it because Mick always expected more of him. Mick thought Rocky had “moxie” before he became a bum.
When Mick comes to Rocky’s dump to offer his services, Rocky takes a long look at his situation. Rocky’s no Einstein (are any of us?), but he’s not stupid either. He has two bad choices.
The first choice is to fight the champ and get the crap kicked out of him. The champ is the greatest fighter of all time and could very likely kill him with one precise blow to his head. At the very least Rocky will be humiliated. He’ll become a barroom joke . . . not just in Philadelphia, but all over the world. That’s his first choice—humiliation.
The second choice is seemingly not so bad. He could beg off, tell the champ he appreciates the shot, but he’s just not at his level. There would be no shame in turning down an unwinnable fight would there? Rocky would be able to keep threatening welshers for his mafia boss and he could stay in his flop for the rest of his life. And he’d have a great story to tell people about how he turned down the greatest fighter of all time… No one would blame him for choosing to run away.
Really, only one person—two actually—would find that choice cowardly.
The first choice, fighting, could lead to literal death. But Rocky also knows that running away, the second bad choice, would be spiritual death. He’d end up hating himself even more than he already does. Shame is at stake versus Honor. (Shame/Honor is the core global value at stake for the Performance Genre).
What’s even better is that Stallone makes Rocky face himself thirty years in the future, in the form of Mick. Rocky knows that Mick knows the balance sheet of both choices here. Because even though Stallone never literally states it in the screenplay, the reader/viewer knows that Mick made the choice to quit decades before. This is why Rocky and Mick are the perfect match to take on a power as great as the champ.
They’re both in it for redemption. And trust me, there is not a fighter in the world who wants to step into a ring with someone looking for redemption. [The External Performance Genre’s Shame/Honor welded to the Internal Morality Genre/Redemption Plot is irresistible.]
The best bad choice for Rocky is to fight.
He can take a physical beating, but he won’t be able to live with himself with a psychological one. He’ll always be a bum, but at least he’ll be an honorable one. Mick knows Rocky’s situation too. It’s why he dragged his ass to Rocky’s dump in the first place. This best bad choice Crisis comes at the end of the Beginning Hook of the screenplay, and it sets up the rest of the movie perfectly.
What’s an example of the best bad choice for nonfiction?
A while back, two men in powerful positions in the U.S., one a member of Congress and one a Governor were faced with the same Best Bad Choice situation. Both men, as men seem to do over and over again, lost themselves in their intoxicating positions of being highly respected members of government.
A great number of people relied on these men, sacrificed for these men and believed in them. But if you had to boil down to the single other human being on the planet who believed in them the most, you’d have to say their life partners—their wives—sacrificed the most for them. I’m sure their wives were not and still aren’t saints and that the relationships had all of the deeply serious challenges that any committed one does. But the fact is that there’s just one rule in a committed relationship that is unassailable.
You must remain faithful. You cannot cheat.
Both men cheated, one with a prostitute and one online. They both made a terrible decision, one that they most likely continued to make over and over again until they got caught. (I’m no psychologist, but it’s pretty obvious that everyday people, not sociopaths, do stupid things more out of self-sabotage than animus).
One chose to call a press conference, admitted that he’d been with a prostitute and eventually resigned as the Governor, probably destroying his political career for the rest of his life in the process. The other said his computer had been hacked, and denied that he did anything inappropriate. Eventually after overwhelming evidence that the man claiming victimhood was lying, he finally admitted that he not only did what he said that he didn’t do, but that he lied about it…twice…once to his wife and then to the world.
Both men had to face a real life Best Bad Choice . . . admit a character defect and take the consequences or lie and maybe get away with it. One man’s bad choice was truly better than the other’s wasn’t it? The guy who came clean right off the bat? You have more sympathy for that guy don’t you? You’re more likely to give that guy a break than the other one wouldn’t you?
This is the stuff of humanity and by association art. You must understand the concept of the best bad choice and artfully place your characters is these kinds of situations and have them choose. The choices they make will tell the reader/viewer/listener what kind of character they are.
What your characters say they are is not who they are… What they do is the key.
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