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Decisions are odd things — as kids, we long for the freedom to make our own, but when confronted with one, many of us are inclined to panic. All but the most impulsive of us want time to make big decisions, and don't like being forced to make a shotgun choice. That's understandable — especially if the decision in question is life-changing (should I propose? Should I go to college? Should I move to a different country?) or irreversible (Do I sacrifice my life to save this person? Do I tell my child that they are adopted?) and especially if they are both.
But there are also people who struggle with all decisions. Don't ask them what they want for dinner unless you have an entire day free in your calendar. Don't make them pick which film you and your group are going to see, because by the time they've decided (reluctantly) which one to pick, the cinema will have moved on to different movies.
They are hugely frustrating in friendships, and even more so in relationships. Interestingly, in fiction, this characters is more likely to be female in most contexts — but in romance, it's usually the male character who "can't commit." They can also be frustrating to the audience, particularly if they are the main character. Expect to yell at them to get their act together as they start Navel-Gazing for the zillionth time.
The Ditherer comes in a variety of types:
The Wishy-Washy: The character is basically spineless, and his/her inability to make decisions or take responsibility is a hallmark of their general cowardice. Often selfish to some extent — the basic reason for their indecision is that they want to have their cake and eat it, and choosing one thing may mean rejecting another.
The Cloudcuckoolander: Decisions are a bit too reality based and permanent for them, and usually a warning signal of Growing Up Sucks. Thus, they consciously avoid them.
The Empathic Fence-Sitter: Decisions might offend or damage someone, and that's not something they want to deal with, so they dodge decisions where possible.
Just Plain Lazy: Decisions involve effort, which is to be avoided at all costs. Leave it alone, someone else will deal with it eventually.
The Insecure/Submissive: They don't trust their own judgement, and/or aren't willing to take responsibility should their decision backfire. They might make a decision under pressure, but have no confidence in it. Will often cling to someone who will make the decisions and take the responsibility from them.
I Can't See The Forest, There Are Too Many Trees: They see all sides of the issue, and can't stop weighing up pros and cons. Likely to overlap with the Empathic type.
All except the Wishy-Washy and Lazy type have a degree of sympathy, but in societies that value self-direction and assertiveness (for example, the USA), the inability to make decisions (or even spending too long on making one, even if you get there eventually) is A Bad Thing, and a hallmark of immaturity or lack of character — especially in a man. Societies that favour thought and reason, however, tend to be more sympathetic, as long as it is clear the The Ditherer is really thinking about it and not dodging the issue.
Ditherers who are men don't get half the sympathy that women do, particularly when female indecision is played for Moe points. Probably because men are supposed to act. The character who plunges headlong into a situation without any thought is more likely to succeed than the character who prepares a dissertation on the issue, unless a "look before you leap" Aesop is being enforced.
A person of one of these types may occupy The Conflicted position in a Four Philosophy Ensemble. In a choice between siding with good or evil, a neutral character will have a problem which side is preferable, especially if he's looking for personal benefits. Because of his indecision to morally shift, this will cause both sides to no longer sympathize with him and will give him the Neutrality Backlash.
Note: One highly stressful decision that causes dithering does not make this trope. However, a pattern of indecision, even if they are all arguably important issues (i.e. a character who "coasts" because they can't decide what they want out of life) does.
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Anime and Manga
The male lead in pretty much any Harem Genre anime in general will be a ditherer of some type (usually a wishy-washy variant) to justify why he never makes a choice.
Axis Powers Hetalia: Italy (Cloudcuckoolander/Insecure type) doesn't like being in any authoritative or decision making position — he leaves that to Germany. Japan (Empathic / Insecure) prefers just to follow whatever the superpower du jour wants to do.
Hidamari Sketch: Yuno (Insecure) doesn't have much faith in her own decisions — she prefers to negotiate with her housemates.
In early Gantz, the main characters are forced to make weighty moral decisions. In the anime version, this leads to entire minutes of dithering.
In From Eroica with Love, penny-pinching James is a ditherer of the wishy-washy "I want it all!" type, usually when it comes to money.
Godai from Maison Ikkoku, to his own detriment, Kyoko's continual annoyance, and great comic effect. As he matures and goes from high school graduate to college student to job seeker (the series spans seven years), he never quite grows out of it, but he learns to take responsibility for the choices he does end up making.
A tragic version in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth; the doctors are trying to get Two-Face to stop relying on his coin to make decisions, and have managed to wean him off the coin and on to a pack of tarot cards (which present more options and are thus closer to the complexity of a free choice,) but at his current stage of the treatment, he's hiding under a table and ends up wetting himself because he can't decide whether to go to the toilet or not. At the end, Batman gives him his coin back and tells him to decide whether Batman should go free or not. Two-Face immediately becomes commanding and authoritative again and also disregards the "choice" the coin made, deciding to release Batman on his own.
'How did I ever stand living like this, where everything I do is so bucking permanent?'
As the page quote above demonstrates, President Skroob from Spaceballs.
The Mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas has a catchphrase of "I'm only an elected official, I can't handle this by myself!" and basically seems to leave all the decision-making to Jack.
Princess Aurora (Wishy Washy) of Sleeping Beauty cannot make up her mind about meeting Philip again or not before deciding on letting him come meet her at her home. Later, after her true heritage is revealed, while she clearly does not want to be a princess but would rather be with the 'peasant' boy she met, she lets the fairies take her to the castle anyway.
Chaim Potok's Asher Lev stories have a more sympathetic ditherer: much of the time, Asher (Empathic/Insecure) seems to let things happen to him rather than making an active choice (the Rebbe is behind most of Asher's "life choices"), but that's because whenever he does make an active choice, he knows people will get hurt. By the second book, he's so browbeaten by his family, his community and life in general that he seems unable to make the decisions that will preserve his own happiness.
The villains of Ayn Rand novels tend to be of the Wishy-Washy or Empathic Fence-sitter variety.
The second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca is extremely indecisive - one short scene shows her unable to decide on a menu for that night's meal, after becoming mistress of the whole household. She's an insecure type (or a wishy-washy one, if you're feeling less generous) who generally bows to the wishes of her husband...or, more dangerously, her malevolent housekeeper.
Confessions of Georgia Nicolson — the titular character likes to think she's assertive, but when confronted with any decision more complicated than "which shade of lipstick do I wear," she promptly becomes a wishy-washy / too-many-trees type.
Interesting variation in Watership Down: Fiver looks like a ditherer: he's twitchy, he's an oracle who has trouble getting people to believe him, and he knows everything, making him a prime candidate for the too-many-trees version. However, Fiver always knows exactly what they should be doing - it's the other rabbits who dither, until either Hazel or Bigwig bites the bullet and makes the call.
Claudius is a bit of a ditherer. In any other situation, he'd be a wishy-washy type...but Claudius has good reason to be wary — one wrong move could get him assassinated in the wasp's nest that is his family. One of the few instances where avoiding decisive action pays off: the more "manly," assertive characters all end up dead. Especially if they were competent or nice in any way.
Archie Jones from White Teeth is so indecisive the he often resorts to flipping a coin.
There's an Isaac Asimov short story (whose title escapes me) of a General who had to make the best use of "sub-par" individuals. One example is of a chronically indecisive character who is tasked with making the decision on a peace negotiations. He pairs him up with a paranoiac who is tasked with pointing out all the possible flaws in the options in front of him. The idea was that only the optimal solution would have no flaws for the paranoic to pick at and so there would be nothing else to choose (apparently the idea that negotiations would never end was ruled out).
Nor the idea that even the best solution might have some flaws, just less so than the others.
According to Flashman this was the defining personality trait of General Elphinstone during the first Anglo-Afghan War. Had he committed to ANY course of action, he could have saved at least a part of his army. Dithering while under constant assault of by enemy forces proved... less than productive.
Gray Wing from the Warrior Cats arc Dawn of the Clans has trouble making decisions. He repeatedly changes his mind over whether to follow the Sun Trail, and has a hard time deciding to ask his crush Storm to come and live in the hollow. This comes back to bite him when Storm gets together with his brother Clear Sky, and later dies.
Live Action TV
Wembley on Fraggle Rock is the Insecure/Submissive version. In fact, his name is used In-Universe as a verb for indecisiveness.
There's an episode of House where the patient's first symptom is that she literally loses the ability to decide. While helping to run a three card monte scam. And from there...
Another episode featured a weaker example of this trope in a woman who obsessively blogged about her life. Unnervingly exhibitionist, but harmless; until it becomes apparent that she leaves all her major decisions up to her internet audience instead of making them herself. When she lets them determine her course of medical treatment (opting for a riskier treatment that may compromise both her long-term health and even her ability to have children) instead of deciding for herself or consulting her significant other, he reaches his breaking point and flips out at her to actually make her own decision based on what she thinks and believes rather than the opinions of strangers over the internet.
Martin in Absolute Power is the lazy version; it's Charles's job to make decisions.
One of the band members in Hallo Spencer. Typical quote: "Well, on the one hand... but on the other hand..."
Both Jeff Winger and Britta Perry from Community meet this trope in slightly different ways:
On the surface, Jeff is cool, collected and confident, hence why people treat him as The Leader — however, not only is he practically the poster boy for the Just Plain Lazy version of the trope, but once you look further under the surface it's pretty clear that he's never really committed to anything meaningful in his life and takes the easy way out (or what he thinks is going to be the easy way out) of every situation because it means he doesn't have to take a stand or risk anything.
Britta is loud, assertive and like Jeff seems pretty confident on the surface, but again this is just cover to mask the fact that she's not nearly as committed to her causes as she wants others to believe and is practically incapable of getting her life together.
Lampshaded by Shirley in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas", when Britta and Jeff lead their friends in denouncing Duncan's attempt to cure Abed's Christmas-themed delusions, only to baulk when Shirley suggests they go the whole hog and start singing:
Shirley:Will you two commit to something for a change?!
Michael Scott of The Office is, depending on the individual decision and the particular point in the series, some combination of all of the types listed above, save the "can't see the forest, there are too many trees" one.
The titular character from Merlin is a variety of dithering types, but mainly a Fence-Sitter. He's given one job and ten years to do it: groom Prince Arthur of Camelot into the type of king that will legalize magic, unite the kingdoms and usher in the Golden Age. None of this actually happens, largely due to Merlin's inability to face up to the truth and reveal his own magical abilities.
The Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert is a perpetual ditherer of the lazy variety, because he knows if he dithers over a decision it will often go away on its own and he won't have do anything.
One Garfield comic opens with Jon ordering chocolate at an ice-cream stand, to which Garfield comments this isn't like Jon. Jon then devolves into indecisiveness which ends with him trying to decide where he or the girl running the stand should decide.
In Lady in the Dark, Liza finds herself unable to Make Up Her Mind between the Easter cover and the circus cover, and also between Kendall Nesbitt and Randy Curtis. She is forced to defend her fence-sitting before a circus court in the third Dream Sequence, which she does by means of a song called "The Saga of Jenny."
This is one interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. He's told right at the start of the play that his uncle had killed his father and Hamlet should avenge him. "Now might I do it pat," he says, but never does until it's too late, and gets nearly everyone else killed in the process. Laurence Olivier even prefaces his film version by saying "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."
Val from Babes In Arms is constantly changing his mind and his philosophy.
Go to this trope's discussion page. Look at the YKTTW archive. Notice the time between the suggestion and the launch..? Or that the troper that suggested it and the one who actually launched it are two different tropers? Hmm...
Catherine: Vincent's (wishy-washy) inability to decide what he wants out of life drives the plot.
Io Nitta of Devil Survivor 2 is an empathic fence-sitter, eventually called out on it and learns that sometimes it's best to voice your own opinion.
Onboard computer:This is your onboard computer system. We are about to crash. What do you want to do? Stick person: Uh... umm... I can't decide. Onboard computer:Steering to prevent an accident? Stick person: Well, yeah, but, uh.... Onboard computer:Do you want to crash? Stick person: Well, not really.... Onboard computer:Then maybe you should steer. Stick person: But I'm baaaad at that! Onboard computer:Do you want to crash? Stick person: Well, not really, it's just that— (The stick person's car crashes.)
Fluttershy, in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a sympathetic Empathic/Insecure type, whose rare assertions/decisions are usually followed by an apology. Unless it's one of "her" episodes. Twilight shows occasional symptoms of the too-many-trees type.
Believe it or not, Tummi Gummi actually fell into this trope in the Gummi Bears episode, "The Fence Sitter."
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Aang spends a lot of time deliberately avoiding how he's going to deal with both the fact that he needs to learn firebending to deal with Ozai, and how he's going to deal with Ozai when his personal philosophy rules out the only apparent option. The firebending thing gets resolved in due time, but the issue of dealing with Ozai without killing him requires a Deus ex Machina to come along at the last minute to bail him out.
The Legend of Korra's Mako has this problem, of the "can't commit" type, being torn between Korra and Asami and of just avoiding confrontation in general.
Played With in the ThunderCats (2011) episode "The Duelist and the Drifter" with Eccentric Mentor the Drifter, who vacillates between wishy-washy, lazy and insecure while constantly appending ambivalent qualifiers to his speech, including "...or don't, I don't care," and "take it or leave it." Peculiarly, whatever advice he offers is always pertinent in spite of his noncommital delivery, and his repeated insistances that he doesn't care are undermined by the aid he gives while saying so.
Real Life: The hallmark of "Perceivers" in the Myers-Briggs personality test, as opposed to the decisive "Judgers." Perceivers usually have the too-many-trees version.
Western Zodiac: The "dual" signs are usually described as ditherers. Libra is notorious for this, supposedly due to a combo of too-many-trees/empathic traits. Pisces gets it too, but that's usually blamed on wishy-washy/insecure traits. Gemini is usually given the nastier, more calculating side of the ditherer - they're supposed to hold out until someone hands them both options on a plate.