Monday, November 30, 2009

A different value: choice

Would you rather have a choice? Or would you rather not?

I'm going to guess that when the question is asked that way, a lot of people will answer, "yes." In America, we tend to like to have choices. We have tons of them - just walk into the supermarket and try to buy breakfast cereal, or laundry detergent, and you'll discover how many options go into just a single choice around here.

Or how about a restaurant, when you order? Would you like soup or salad with that? Salad? Great. What kind of dressing? You have six options to choose from.

This is the kind of thing that many Americans relish. It's also the kind of thing that shuts a lot of people's brains down. My Australian and British friends tend to wonder at the diversity of options over here, and at the same time say, "Isn't it ridiculous?"

The availability of choice has also changed over time. When I was a kid, I never remember choosing what I had for breakfast, except when I chose my breakfast cereal at the store. I chose the cereal then, and then ate it day after day. But I find myself asking my kids what they'd like on almost a daily basis. This becomes a problem, because it opens me up to complaints about having given them the wrong thing. I never gave the choice problem a single thought when I began this routine, but I probably should have. Now I have to try to train my kids out of being finicky. Sad to say, I was the one who inadvertently trained them into it, at least where breakfast was concerned.

And then there are life choices. We talk about these with our kids regularly. If someone at school is constantly bugging you, what do you do? Often enough, you feel like you have no options - so talking it out and making sure you consider different possibilities can have great value. Tell the teacher is one option. Call the kid's bluff is another option. Bluff or tease back is another, and yet another is to get violent. Some of these options are socially acceptable, and others are not - and don't even get me started about questions like drugs and alcohol. I've already mentioned those issues to my kids, even though they're just 4 and 6. I figure the orientation had better start early.

My friend Janice Hardy has a great little quote in her book, The Shifter: "She who has a choice has trouble."

Now, when it comes to writing and worldbuilding advice, I'll start with the obvious: make sure that your setting has a level of choice consistent with that present in any historical analog you're using for background. Don't have your medieval character walk into the equivalent of a Y2K grocery store, or even a 1950's grocery store! If you're working from the ground up in a science fictional or fantasy economy, think through how goods are supplied and transported, and that will help you arrive at how they might be presented. Different social groups can have different ways of accessing goods depending on their level of affluence, as well.

Second, keep your eye out for places where people are likely to be asked to make choices, either between objects or between life options. You can really give your world a lot of depth if you can think through what kind of reasoning might go into your character's choices in each situation.

Third - and I think this is the sneaky one - keep your eye out for a character's tacit expectation of choice. A character without the means to access the choices available to others will not react easily to being presented with the kind choice a rich or powerful person is accustomed to dealing with. The options that spring up in the character's mind will be limited by their culture and upbringing. They'll probably struggle. They'll probably also wonder why they have to choose at all, and whether there's any potential for punishment involved in the choice. Furthermore, they'll be far more likely simply to accept what they're given without question or objection. So watch out for situations where your poor or undercaste character acts as if he/she feels entitled to the privileges of the rich. Even as this character objects to his/her status, even as he/she plots revolution, there's going to be a subconscious level on which they fear the ability to make a choice.

It's something to think about.


  1. I'll have to keep this in mind when I go back to my YA novel. I never thought about choice and its implications in quite that way before. Good points.

  2. Thanks, Jaleh! I'm glad it was helpful.

  3. Thanks for all your somethings to think about. I'm going to keep this post for a reference when I get to those places in my story.