Balancing Your Character’s Choices and Circumstances

Nature versus nurture. Fate versus the will. Powerlessness versus responsibility. Human beings try to puzzle out how these pairs of opposing concepts can coexist. How much can we control? How much should we try to affect outcomes? How do we react when bad things happen?

These perennial questions about the human experience are integral to stories. The best plots strike just the right balance between a character’s choices to act and the circumstances to which he or she reacts. But finding that balance is rarely intuitive. A protagonist dragged along by coincidences, miracles, and rescues—never making a risky choice or taking decisive action—becomes boring and unappealing. On the other hand, a story with no magic or unpredictability at all doesn’t accurately reflect the truth about reality.

Barbara Robinette Moss’s memoir Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter is a remarkable nonfiction example of the balance between choices and circumstances. Moss was born into deep poverty, and she developed facial deformities as a result of malnourishment. As a young teenager, she prayed to become as beautiful as Zeus’s daughter, the goddess of beauty. Then she set out to change her fate, making a list of seemingly impossible goals like having her teeth straightened, having her moles removed, and learning to play the piano.

The resourceful young Barbara worked hard at various jobs to afford her dreams. Still, she often came up short, and kind doctors were so touched by her dogged determination that they cut her deals to remove her moles and fix her teeth. She married twice, had a son, rented a piano, and went to art school. And ultimately, she did become beautiful when she qualified for a free, experimental surgery to reshape the malformed bones of her face.

This true story exemplifies the interplay of the things over which we have no control—life’s good and bad circumstances—and the ability we have to choose and pursue particular courses of action. If our fictional stories incorporate that same interplay, they will deeply resonate in our readers’ hearts.