Beyond the Dragons: The Critical Decision of the Hero
Some would say that the main decision by the hero of the story happens at the climax and establishes the point where the victory is won, where the solution is achieved, where the conflict is resolved. I don’t believe so. I think the Critical Decision is another one.
I’ve written somewhere else about what I call the ‘Critical Decision of the Hero’. This decision is the one that will be at the center of the whole story. It happens typically, in my view, at the end of the First Act and Joseph Campbell would call it The Acceptance of the Call. I think this Critical Decision shows up in basically every story, by the hero or the protagonist: there is a conflict and a main challenge — the decision by the protagonist to accept the challenge and face the odds becomes the propeller for the whole story. Every time there are doubts and obstacles, the protagonist will return to this decision and decide whether to keep going or give up. Until the very end.
The Critical Decision is a very important moment in a story and I like it when the authors play due attention to it. Who can forget, for instance, THE SONG OF ICE AND FIRE’s Daenerys’ decision in A CLASH OF KINGS of stepping into the fire with her dragon eggs? Or Frodo deciding to go to Mordor (the first book’s Critical Decision is for Frodo to leave the Shire, but the whole saga’s Critical Decision is to go to Mordor)? If the decision is properly prepared, it can become a source of inspiration to us all. Preparation, however, is far from easy. Skill is needed.
Think of THE MATRIX for a second. We all know that when the time comes, Neo will choose to learn the truth, to accept the red pill and go through the looking glass. Still, it’s important to support that decision and so the protagonist is tested several times. He has to make successive decisions before he even meets Morpheus and makes the Critical Decision. In the beginning, his computer says “Follow the White Rabbit” and a couple knocks on Neo’s door, inviting him to a club. He declines, but then he sees the tattoo of the white rabbit and changes his mind. In the club, he meets Trinity and she asks him what is the question he wants to have answered — he responds: “What is the Matrix?” The next day, he is reprimanded by his boss, who tells him that if he wants to keep his job he has to obey the rules. And then Morpheus calls him and tells him he has to decide if he wants to escape the police or go with them. That’s the only time Neo’s strength fails and his doubts overcome him. He lets himself be caught by the police. In the interrogation, Agent Smith tells him he has to choose between Anderson and Neo — Neo gives him the finger and asks for a phone call. He wakes up in his bed and Trinity picks him up. With a gun to his head he has to decide “their way or the highway”, he decides to stay. Only after all these decisions, when the question is so well established in all our minds, Neo is finally faced with the Critical Decision: the blue pill or the red pill. This decision is the basis of the whole story and the build-up to this moment is crucial. Even Cypher plays with it later: “Oh why, oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”
In THE MATRIX the buildup is so well done that the Critical Decision itself becomes a Watercooler Moment (a moment to remember). No-one who watched the movie ever forgets the moment Neo chose the red pill.
Another Critical Decision. In TAKEN, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson’s character) in on the phone with his daughter who is away in Paris, and she’s frantic, telling him some men are in the apartment, kidnapping her friend. Bryan immediately decides that she must hide under a bed and tells her she would be taken. He had foreseen this event and his Critical Decision was the one to allow his daughter to go to Paris in spite of all his instincts. The Watercooler Moment comes next, when the kidnapper comes to the phone and Bryan tells him he has a “particular set of skills” he will use to find him and kill him. And the kidnapper tells him “Good luck.”
In THE SOUND OF MUSIC, the Critical Decision comes when Maria sings “My Favorite Things” and we know she decided to stay with the Von Trapp. In JAWS, I believe it’s the moment Sheriff Brody decides to hire Quint, the fisherman, and take the matter into his own hands, even though this comes later in the story.
The whole set-up, the inciting incident, the debate, the doubts of the first 10%-20% of the story are the preparation for the Critical Decision. And even if the decision seems obvious and easy at the moment it is taken, our job as authors is to make it difficult until that very moment. In medieval maps, un-sailed seas were marked with the expression: “Hic sunt dracones.” The English version of the phrase states: “Here there be dragons”. These were the borders of the known Universe. Those who crossed them would have to be bold and determined. Not all protagonists are overall bold and determined. Maybe some are forced to take the Critical Decisions or don’t even realize the gravity of their choices. Still, the strength of our stories depends on these moments where the characters decided to cross the border into the unknown and we all say: “Here there be dragons.”