On Decisions

By JT Ellison

What do you do when faced with a life-changing decision? Do you jump off the cliff and go for it, heedless of the consequence? Do you agonize, write lists of pros and cons, worry yourself into sleepless nights until the decision is made? Or do you use entropy, edging toward the decision through the path of least resistance, not deciding, but not walking away, either?

I’ve always been a bit of a cliff jumper myself. I make up my mind on things quickly, and move forward decisively. Sometimes too decisively.

So when my main character, Dr. Samantha Owens, was faced with a life-changing decision at the beginning of WHEN SHADOWS FALL, I thought she’d be like me – make the decision and move on. But she didn’t. She fought against what she knew would be best for her, and it took her a whole novel to decide.

It’s a tricky thing, changing a character’s world. Whether they get married, have a child, get divorced, meet a lover, start a new job, deal with a loved one’s death – these catalysts drive our narratives, giving our character’s depth, and making them relatable.

I’ve been throwing changes at Dr. Samantha Owens for several books now. She’s had to face the death of her husband and children in the Nashville floods, the death of her ex-lover, the surprising love of a new man, a move from Nashville to Washington D.C. and a new job running the brand-new forensic pathology program at Georgetown University. And in WHEN SHADOWS FALL, she’s faced with even more decisions – whether to accept a consulting position with the FBI, whether to accept a ring from her lover, whether to investigate the murder of a man who clearly committed suicide.

What is it the French say? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Stasis is the death of novels. Change, not for the sake of change, but for the sake of challenge, is the only way to keep a series alive, to keep the characters interesting, to keep their story moving forward. It’s a careful balance, and it’s where the novel’s conflict comes from. Too much change, and you lose the things that make readers love the character. Too little change, and things get boring.

Sam’s facing the biggest decision of her life in WHEN SHADOWS FALL. The question is posed in the first chapter, and she doesn’t decide fully until the last. Her decision changes the course of the series, sending it in a new direction. It gives the series real legs, sustainability, reason and meaning. Sam can move forward now, unfettered by her past.

At least, we hope she can.

So what about you? How do you make decisions? Leap and bounds, or slow and steady?

This blog first appeared on Murder She Writes February 24, 2014


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