choice makes you human, human makes you interesting

I’ve seen two examples recently of a character exercising their human autonomy through the act of choice. Both of these characters were in complex circumstances that they could have used to explain away their actions. In both cases, doing so would have weakened their position.

The first was from Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. When Martha first proposes to Theo that she’ll pay him to get her pregnant, he questions what her options are.

“Then why do this?” He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. “Why not go to your brother at once?” Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. “Because that is not what I choose to do.”

The effect of her autonomy is strengthened by the fact that we’ve been in her head, and know that going back to her brother is a desperate, claustrophobic thought to her. So often in fiction characters give their exact thoughts in argument – or they purposely misdirect, or simply avoid answering. She doesn’t feel the need to either confess or lie. It is enough for her that she knows her reasons, and she trusts herself to choose her own path.

Particularly for a female character, I found this to be a powerful declaration of independence.

The second was in the final Matrix movie. Neo is having his arse handed to him by Mr Smith, but he will not stay down. This enrages Mr Smith, because it’s a lack of logic particular to living things, and he cannot understand it.

MR SMITH: Why do you do it, Mr Anderson? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? I believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only the human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr Anderson, you must know it by now, you can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr Anderson? Why, why do you persist?

NEO: Because I choose to.

This is such a great line. I admit that in the rather dated trilogy it took me wholly by surprise. It’s especially excellent because Mr Smith has already torn down every single reason Neo might be expected to give. He harps on about love, and as we’ve just seen Neo sacrifice love for the good of mankind, you could forgive him for taking love as a reason to keep on fighting.

But Mr Smith is…kinda right. All those noble human emotions and ideals for which humans go to war and broker peace and push themselves beyond their abilities – depend on perception. They’re not true across all contexts, and for all people. Choice was the only irrefutable reply Neo could have made.

Choice doesn’t depend on morality, or truth, it just is. It is a personal action, a declaration of human autonomy.

Of itself, choice is incredibly simple. It’s always the context that makes it interesting. I think that’s probably why I’ll always root for the character who sees a situation clearly and makes the difficult, unpopular decision with far-reaching consequences. You have to be a particularly powerful sort of a human, to do so.

Comments 10 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks Robena! I’m working hard at the writing – but this editing process is taking longer than I expected. (Okay, so I began with ridiculous, unrealistic expectations, but even adjusting those expectations I keep being surprised by how long it’s taking.) This is where all those details I’ve been putting in the “deal with later” pile for a couple of years need to actually be dealt with. It’s kinda great, though! I’m enjoying making my novel a much better story.

  1. robenagrant

    I love the revisions/rewriting stage. Love to figure out what it is that I’ve spent months scribbling about, and then smoothing it out and making it fresh and sparkly. But then I quite enjoy ironing too! I’m weird like that. : )

  2. bleuet

    “[...] the character who sees a situation clearly and makes the difficult, unpopular decision with far-reaching consequences […]” is also one of my favourites.
    Though I have to admit that I also love it when there are two equally bad choices to choose from and the character decides in favour of one of them nonetheless – no trying to find a way around one of these two choices or waiting so long that the decision is made for them, be it by others or by the situation changing to be irreversible and leaving only one choice.

    It is strange, but the more emotional strain there is on a character, the more they suffer the less I want them to be redeemed. A happy ending in a book or story that has been defined by losses, necessary or otherwise, by suffering and desperation, to me, seems to make all the characters have gone through meaningless. To me,
    a happy ending doesn’t seem like a reward, but rather an attempt to wipe the negative experiences of the characters out of our mind. Like an attempt to negate everything that defines them, or at least a big part of them, which is a betrayal of that character on the part of the reader and the author.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I like reading happy endings and funny stories and I can be glad for the characters when they get what they have always hoped for. But there is this point where unpleasant experiences become awful experiences. Experiences that are so awful that they cannot be wiped out by any amount of positive outlook or developments that give hope. From that point onward I prefere there to be hopeful endings if not sad ones.

    Anyway, can I ask you something about revision? It is probably a silly question, too…
    When you have revised this draft, how many others are there going to be? Surely revising only once (or twice) won’t be enough? And also, when do you know you have revised enough and further rewriting is pointless? I can’t imagine this stage to be easy…

    1. anna cowan Post author

      ooooooooh, it’s not easy! :-) kinda fun, though. This is quite a polished draft, because it’s the third major attempt at the story. (My book is currently 110,000 words long, and before this draft I had already chucked 150,000 words of the same story.) HOPEFULLY this means I don’t have too many revisions to go before I can send it out. Once I finish this edit I’ll do a second edit, before I send it to beta readers. I didn’t think at first that I’d need to do that, but I’m realising that the cleaner I make it, the clearer any awkward/unnecessary writing becomes. So yep, I’ll definitely need a second full edit. Then I’ll send it to beta readers and do a third full edit with their feedback. Then, hopefully, it’ll be ready to go out to agents.

      I just discovered Joanna Bourne’s website (she’s a romance writer whose writing is so far out of my league it boggles my mind), and she has some great articles for writers: http://www.joannabourne.com//writers.html The one on “drafts” and “The first big edits” are both really useful on this topic.

      As for irredeemable characters…I find what you said so interesting. And I agree that there are some things you can’t fully bring a character back from. Optimism is a central tenet of romance, so I think all stories will end with at least the sense that these two characters together have the tools to overcome whatever difficulties are before them. I don’t tend to read much fiction with difficult endings, because I find they just stay with me and stay with me, as some part of my psyche tries to reorder the narrative and give it closure.

      1. bleuet

        Happy Easter Anna!

        The mulling over of a story without closure is part of why I love difficult endings so much. :D This kind of story seems so much more memorable. And maybe I am a masochist? Guess that goes to show how different people are once more.

        I had a look at Jo’s website and I have to say it is amazing! Thank you for pointing it out ;)

        I don’t really know what to say to the amount of words you have chucked out or the work you have already done on your book, apart from “wow”. WOW.
        It is probably because I don’t have much experience, but hey~ wow!

        1. anna cowan Post author

          and Happy Easter to you! Hey, if I’d known I was gonna throw that many words, I probably would’ve been too daunted to write a single word. Hindsight is great and also terrifying!

  3. Michael

    Anii, when I teach the Class 9 Main Lesson, called Choice and Chance, I always think of Rove’s first wife,Belinda Emmet. Though dying of cancer, when asked, she said,”I’m happy, because I choose to be.”

    1. anna cowan Post author

      That would have to be one of the most powerful ways to employ choice (which I think everyone can do, even if their circumstances aren’t as dire as hers were) – but it also feels foreign to me. I can’t imagine how you could make that choice. I wonder if you have to have the high stakes to really understand what that choice would mean.

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