To quote the Oxford Dictionary:
Ultimatum: a final demand or statement of terms, the rejection of which will result in retaliation or a breakdown in relations.
As we’ve probably stated once or twice on this blog, conflict makes good writing. A character who can conquer any opposition, overcome any obstacle and instantly charm anyone they meet into doing anything for them regardless of personal friendship gets boring very quickly. A character who can’t do anything at all becomes dull and irrelevant to the plot if they can’t impact it in any way. That’s why both examples need to make choices.
Sometimes a character will err on the border of either extreme, and that’s when an ultimatum comes into play. A famous example of an ultimatum is Sophie’s Choice, wherein a mother has to decide which of her two children will live and which will die. Forcing a character to choose the lesser of two evils is what often drives a plot, stripping away most of the limits of their characterisation and forcing them to knuckle down and make a decision, normally with an unfair time limit. Of course, more often than not there will be a deus ex machina to save both the parties in question and prevent them from making the choice, but this often viewed as tacky and requires a certain setup to perform well.
Some authors long to see their characters suffer. Some get attached and have difficulty making them suffer. An ultimatum is almost beautiful in that it can work with both situations, not always placing the character in peril. Of course, an ultimatum doesn’t have to be a choice between two – it could be more, or even something like being forced to accept their own fate.
Next week: the letters get trickier.