Tavi Calderon of Codex Alera lives and breathes this trope. He does it so much, and so frequently, that his allies start tracking him by assuming he found a third, completely-insane option that he manages to make work by waving around his continent-sized cojones.
Need to break the law to end a war? Break the law, end the war, and then write a new law that pardons you.
Indefensible position, must hold it anyway? Convert the enemy to your side.
too few Canim to fight the Vord, too many to ship back to Alera? Build boats out of icebergs.
Slaver demands that you replace the slave chains you broke or get off his ship? Offer him gold chains and demand that he only use those.
It's like Insanity Wolf, but it works!
Harry Dresden of the Dresden Files gets a few of these over time.
From the Summer and Winter Mothers: (paraphrased) "Which is more important, body or soul?" Harry: "Your question is stupid." To each other: "He is very wise."
When Shagnasty has Thomas at the top of Demonreach Island, he demands that Harry turn over Morgan or it'll kill Thomas. Harry blasts Thomas out of his hands, into the hut where Molly is hiding. Subverted; Shagnasty had tortured Thomas so much that Thomas's succubus-demon had full reign, and so Shagnasty was considering throwing Thomas in there anyway For the Evulz.
Kumori and Cowl give him the standard join-or-die routine. Harry bumps Cowl's elbow while the latter is handling supernatural high-explosives.
In that same book, Harry needed a massive amount of undead to protect himself to even get close to said dangerous spell and stop a godling from being born. However, doing so requires using Necromancy, which is forbidden. Solution? Raise a Tyrannosaurus rex from the dead, which is not forbidden.
In the first book: if Harry doesn't kill the warlock, he'll die by curse. If he does, he'll be killed by a demon. Solution? disrupt the curse and then free the demon that the warlock sends after him. The warlock was eaten by the demon.
Subverted in one of the short novels in Andrew Sapkowsky's The Last Wish (prequel to the Witcher half-decameron), when Geralt has to choose between killing Renfri or Stregobor. He decides that both of them are evil and it's best to not take part, but after hearing about Tridaam Ultimatum he kills Renfri fearing that innocents would be slaughtered. In the end, it shows up that ignoring everything would be the best option Let's just say that he didn't earned "Butcher from Blaviken" title for nothing.
Discussed in The Red Pyramid (in a moment of Genre Savviness) when Sadie is asked if she was prepared to lose her father if it meant saving the world.
Sadie (narrating): Of course I knew the right answer. The heroine is supposed to refuse to sacrifice her father. Then she boldly goes off and saves her dad AND the world, right?
Neville Longbottom gets a "Join Me or Die" from Voldemort. He takes a third option: killing Voldemort's snake Nagini and tell him he won't join. Turns out doing that prevents Voldemort from retaliating, as the snake was his lastHorcrux; he was now vulnerable to being Killed Off for Real by Harry.
A rare example of a hero being offered a third option occurs in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Harry encounters the sphinx in the maze. She tells him that he is allowed to simply turn around and walk away if he is unable to solve the riddle she poses. (This is a subversion, however, because he doesn't take that option: he able to answer it correctly.)
At the end of Les Misérables, Inspector Javert is faced with the decision of taking Jean Valjean, a runaway convict who saved his life, either back to jail to serve a life sentence or allow him to go. Javert, who has dedicated his whole life to serving the law, feels that he cannot let a wanted convict go, for it would be to betray everything he has even been; And neither can he bring him in, for that would be to betray justice and God's law, and prove that he has been unjust in judging good men, and therefore his whole life has been meaningless. It is a two-edged sword that he eventually resolves by throwing himself into the Seine
A significant part of the plot of the Greek mythology parody Ye Gods! by Tom Holt is that the classical hero Jason Derry finds Third Options wherever he looks, interfering with how the gods think his story is supposed to go. A lampshade is hung on this early on, when he is given the very symbolic choice between the Path of Virtue and the Path of Luxury, and a third road appears out of nowhere, marked "Diversion".
William Horwood's novel Skallagrigg describes a computer game that begins with the player's daughter being born with severe disabilities (the game's creator has cerebral palsy). The player is asked whether to let the baby live or die, but both answers are dead ends. The hidden third option, which leads into the rest of the game, is "don't know".
An older, famous literary example is in the play Nathan the Wise, taken from an even older story in The Decameron. The title character, a Jew, is asked by the Muslim ruler Saladin to determine whether Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the "true religion". Given that because of anti-apostacy laws he would be executed for giving preference to any of the three, he instead uses the "parable of the rings" to give the non-answer that each religion thinks it's the true one but since no one can know until the day of judgment, people might as well be good to one another.
The ending and one major theme of Catch-22. Yossarian is presented with two options by his commanding officers: promote what they are doing and go home a hero (but betray his friends), or face a court-martial. After first deciding to go home, he sees the immorality of it and decides to take a third option (deserting) and therefore beat the system.
This is spoofed in the book by the name of the person who inspires him to attempt desertion. His friend was named Orr which sounds the same as the word "or". He is the character who finds another alternative.
A minor example occurs early in Ender’s Game. In a video game that invents itself as the player moves forward, Ender eventually runs up against a situation called the Giant's Drink: a giant offers Ender's character a choice between two odd-looking drinks. They're both poisoned; no matter which one Ender chooses, he always dies, albeit in a different way each time. Finally, frustrated by the game, Ender climbs up the giant's shirt and kills him by digging into his skull through his eye. It's not the most meaningful decision ever made—certainly not the most meaningful decision Ender makes—but the only reason Ender can continue in the game is because he thinks outside the box. Also, the game is a psych test in disguise, and getting fed up with the Giant and giving up on the certain-death test rather than continuing to drink is an allegory for overcoming suicidal tendencies, so Ender is unknowingly passing a major test on the way to the end (the Drink puzzle only comes up for people who've proven their suicidal tendencies through previous choices, and no one has ever "beaten" before, leading the developers to freak when the game has to write entire new areas to accommodate how awesome Ender just proved himself to be).
The climax of the book is also a kind of Take a Third Option. Ender is facing his last and most difficult challenge at Command School, with only eighty outdated fighters up against a force of thousands and thousands based around a planet. He realizes that the teachers either want him to win fairly, in which case they'll just throw more and more challenges at him when he commands the real fleet, or lose, in which case he'll be sent home, and someone else will have to command the fleet and probably lose for real. So instead, he decides to win unfairly, by using the Dr. Device against the planet, vaporizing the entire enemy fleet and most of his own fighters. Thus, he expects to win but be flunked out anyway for his insane solution. Except for the twist ending...
The twist ending is that the "simulation" wasn't a simulation at all. Ender was actually controlling fighters the entire book when he thought he was just practicing for the battle. Which means he actually did just destroy a populated planet… Ironically, this is explained as exactly what his superiors wanted really, the brilliance of Ender's tactical mind without the ethical or moral hesitations an adult general might have.
Subverted in one of the later Shatnerverse novels when Kirk, forced to chose between the life of his woman and aiding his current arch-nemesis, goes through an internal monologue explicitly trying to think of a third option and reflecting that there is always a third option. Then he realizes that this time, there isn't.
...Until he turns on his archnemesis, his Evil Twin from an evil parallel universe, anyway... But that doesn't happen until the next book.
In Stephen Marley's Spirit Mirror, a dark fantasy story set in ancient China, the Big Bad, Nyak the GameMaster, is a Manipulative Bastard who preys on the heroine, Chia. Chia knows this and spends much of the book trying to Take a Third Option and avoid playing into Nyak's hands by doing what expects her to. She fails.
In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, at the end of the second volume the Hero faces a Friend or Idol Decision. She takes the "right" option, the one that wasn't used by the villain (and is the reason he became the villain). It is then revealed that her choice actually releases an evil god and the third book is all about taking a third option.
Toward the end of Wizard's First Rule, the Big Bad Darken Rahl gives Richard a choice: Either help him open the MacGuffin, allowing him to rule the world and take Kahlan as his queen, or do nothing, in which case Rahl will open one of the boxes and either rule the world anyway or destroy it. In the end, Richard feigns helping him (Rahl believed he was under a spell that would make him tell the truth), and tricks him into killing himself.
Later, Richard finds himself unable to fight Jagang with just D'hara or to unite the Midlands. Solution? Conquer the Midlands before Jagang.
How do you get someone through the Hall of the Betrayer and still have them have a mission? Give them two masters; they only have to betray one.
One of the Halo novels uses this exact phrase while Captain Keyes is formulating tactics to win an impossible battle ("Yes... he did have a third option").
He then proceeds to have a Moment Of Awesome involving ramming a Covenant destroyer to knock out its shields, whilst manouvering so it hits itself with its own plasma torpedoes.
It has to be said the Keyes third option is more awesome than stated above, as he had his ship SLINGSHOT around a planet at one point, remote-activated a Shiva Nuke he'd dumped near the destroyer so its shields would be knocked out, and THEN trailed the plasma torpedoes into the enemy ship. The ramming was actually a calculated, risky move, that nearly tore Keyes' own ship in HALF. As said by the Schoolmaster himself 'half a degree off course, and the Iriquois would have been torn apart'. In the end, every single bottom deck on Keyes ship was breached, and two meters of solid titanium 'A' armor plating had been abraded right through. Moment Of Awesome indeed.
Used in the games as well. The Flood have been released, and the apparent options are to either let them spread and consume everything in the galaxy, or activate the Halo, wiping out the Flood... along with any living thing large enough to support Flood infection. Cortana comes up with another plan; Chief destroys the Halo, eradicating the Flood and preventing galactic destruction.
Used in Frederic Forsyth's novel The Devil's Alternative, where a Ukrainian terrorist is holding an oil tanker hostage and threatens to dump its contents onto the shores of the Netherlands unless his compatriots are released from a German prison. The allied powers know, however, that if the terrorists are released they will inform the media that they have assassinated the head of the KGB, news of which will cause the breakdown of the Russian political system and lead to a megalomaniac taking over the reigns of power and invading Western Europe. The goodies have the choice, allow massive environmental disruption or face the prospect of a Third World War. The hero comes up with the answer: allow the terrorists to be released for long enough that the oil tanker is released, but poison them with a slow acting poison that will kill them before they can release their news.
The entire premise of the novel The Gripping Hand, which is the sequel to a book (The Mote in God's Eye) in which the human species makes contact with a species that has three hands—two dexterous hands and one strong "gripping" hand, the source of the title. This is exemplified in that the phrase "on the one hand...on the other hand..." is often followed by "on the gripping hand" even though humans can't naturally think that way (having only two hands and all).
And yet, despite not having three hands, humans always look for the Third Option - to the point where the fatalistic Moties, condemned by their biology to two bad choices, consider us all insane for not understanding and accepting what is and must always be. Their term for humans is "Crazy Eddie", after a character in their folklore who's all about the (often absurd) Third Option.
Towards the end of Lords of the Bow, the Mongols are apparently faced with a choice of turning back or trying to break through the Great Wall of China and being slaughtered in the process by the Chin army waiting on the other side. Genghis Khan notices that the wall is contiguous with the mountains, and simply sends a portion of his army over the mountains to attack the Chin from behind.
In the Star Trek Tales From the Captain's Table short story An Easy Fast, the protagonist, out for revenge against the three men who killed him (he got better), found each of them in different ways. The first man had already taken the third option of repentance over death and incarceration, so the protagonist let him be. The second man was still wanted, but had started up a lucrative business. The protagonist chose to have him give his employees a cut of the profits as a third option to either death or incarceration. The final man was condemned to die on another planet, and by fate the protagonist had the power to spare him. The third option (from the first two of killing him or leaving him there to rot)? Give the condemned man the choice.
Mackenzie Calhoun took a third option during his Kobyashi Maru test: instead of leaving the ship to its own fate or trying to rescue the crew, he instead torpedoed the Maru, destroying it and damaging the nearby Klingon ships, this allowing his ship to escape. He reasoned that the Maru was an obvious trap (having drifted an unrealistic distance into the Neutral Zone and having a large number of survivors after taking heavy damage, along with the fact that the Klingons hadn't shown up immediately despite an open distress signal in disputed territory), and the crew were either Klingons who were trying to lure him in for the kill or innocent people who had just been spared a torurous death at the hands of the Klingons.
In what amounts to a prose Villain Song, Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead gloats that the contemporary world was fixated on the "choice" between the Nazis and the Communists, two brutal totalitarian ideologies. (The novel was written in the late 1930s, when many people believed that freedom and individual rights had been discredited; in the world of The Fountainhead, freedom is the Third Option.)
In Wizard, the second book in John Varley's Gaea Trilogy, an applicant for receiving one of Gaea's "miracles" is asked a hypothetical question: A train is coming. A little boy and a little girl are tied to the railroad tracks. You only have time to save one of them. What do you do? ... Gaea eventually reveals that there is a response for mortals, and a response for gods. Mortals save one child and then try to save the other. Gods, though, don't bother saving either of them.
In John C. Wright's Fugitives of Chaos, the question of whether to fight Echinda — risking their lives and thereby the universe — or run from her — abandoning people to their deaths — is tabled when Amelia interprets some information and realizes that she can appease her.
Explicitly stated in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time during Rand's military tutelage under Davram Bashere: "When an enemy offers you two targets, take a third."
In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are told by the Gamemakers that only one of them can be the victor, despite an earlier statement saying that if they are the last two alive, two tributes from the same district can survive. (Basically, they have a Screw the Rules, I Make Them! point of view.) Rather than either of them killing the other, Katniss and Peeta bluff the Gamemakers by preparing to commit double suicide, expecting them to prefer two winners over no winner. It works, but the Capitol is furious that Katniss was able to find a third option.
The Wife of Bath's Tale is of a rapist knight who, on being sentenced to death, is given a year and a day to find out what women truly want. He can't find any single answer, until an old hag promises to give him the answer if he'll agree to do something for her. He does, and she does; "She wants mastery over her husband." His life saved, he now has to... marry her. On their wedding night, she offers him a choice: she can be beautiful and unfaithful, or ugly and faithful. Stymied, he gives the choice to her. Pleased that he learned hislesson, she says she'll be both beautiful and faithful.
Done in a somewhat twisted form by HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey: Faced with the dilemma of two contradicting directives, one giving general instructions to provide information to the crew, and one giving specific instructions not to inform the crew about a certain aspect of the mission, HAL finds a way to solve the issue. The problem is, that solution is to Kill Them All.
In Time Enough for Love, one of the passages from "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long" embraces the concept of The Third Option;
"It may be better to be a live jackal than a dead lion, but it is better still to be a live lion. And usually easier."
In Methuselah's Children we get a demonstration of Lazarus' technique. The Howard families are detained in a concentration camp on Earth but he avoided the sweep. He then buys a large capacity cargo spaceship on the Moon and arranges with Slayton Ford, the head of the government, for him to land and load the Howards and escape to the New FrontiersGeneration Ship in earth orbit. Then they steal the starship and head out of human space.
In Rumer Godden's novel The Diddakoi (published in the U.S. as Gypsy Girl) a new girl at school named Kizzy is asked, "Does your mother wash?" If she says, "Yes", the other children would say, "Then she's a washerwoman." If she says, "No", the other children would say, "Then she's a dirty sow." Kizzy takes a third option. "My mother is dead." Justified, because it was true.
Villain example in The Demon Princes series, in The Face: Kirth Gersen has set up a situation where the villain Lens Larque must either personally appear in court to defend against charges, or forfeit his very valuable ship and its cargo. Lens Larque chooses to blow the ship up and collect on the insurance.
In Piers Anthony's The Blue Adept, protagonist Stile has to face the local unicorn Herd Stallion in Trial by Combat so his friend, Neysa, is allowed to accompany him on his quest. The duel will take place within a unicorn circle, which will nullify Stile's magical power, leaving him no match for the massive Stallion. But he's recently acquired use of the Platinum Flute which will allow him to retain his magic. Stile is left with two unpalatable (to him) options: Play things straight, lose, and let the Stallion humiliate him or use the Flute and humiliate the Stallion, possibly making a powerful enemy in the process and definitely making life harder for Neysa, once the quest is over. After consulting with an elder vampire that his friend, Hulk, had helped out earlier, Stile comes up with a plan: At the start of the match, Stile puts on a display of power that showed his magic was intact, allowing the Stallion to bow out gracefully. When the Stallion refused to back down, Stile used the Flute to give himself the same physical power as the Stallion, making things a truly fair fight. The Stallion won, but was so impressed with Stile playing things fairly that he yielded the issue and allowed Neysa to accompany him.
Played with in Lord of the Rings: Saruman reveals to Gandalf that he has made a Face-Heel Turn and is going to make a play to claim the One Ring for himself. He gives Gandalf two choices: either he's with him or he's with Sauron. Gandalf glibly replies that he doesn't like either choice and asks for a third. In response, Saruman locks him up in Orthanc, in an attempt to completely remove him from the game. Gandalf comes up with his own fourth option, by escaping and rallying the Free Peoples against him.
A particularly unconventional version of this trope in The Son Of Neptune, a Percy Jackson book, after the 5th Cohort captures the flag in the battle. Gwen is stabbed in the chest from the back, and consequently dies. Moments later, though, Gwen returns to life, and is immediately questioned as to how it happenned. She says she was at the River Styx, and that a man (Thanatos, or Death, presumably) asked her for a Drachma (Roman money) for transport to the Underworld. We also learn earlier in the series that if you don't have a Drachma, you are forced to wait for eternity (Or at least until someone pays for you too), so Gwen could have gone on or waited for an eternity, but turned around and left, because the Door of Death was still open.
In children's book The Pinkish Purplish Bluish Egg, the griffon that hatches from the egg of the title finds himself and his more conventional bird neighbors menaced by a pack of foxes and wolves. He observes that his size, beak, and claws would probably allow him to simply kill the pack, but his adoptive turtledove mother insists that "violence is wrong" and that he should ignore the pack and hope they leave him alone. Instead, he decides to grab them by their tails and forcibly relocate them to an island off the coast, supposedly without hurting them.
An interesting variation of this occurs in Animorphs. David, the team's new Sixth Ranger, finds himself caught between the heroes and the Yeerks and not trusting either. Instead, he goes Sixth Ranger Traitor and turns on them both.
A traitorous Tom presents a plan to capture the Pool ship to Jake. However, Jake sees through Tom's ulterior motives and realizes that Tom secretly plans to kill Jake and his friends when their usefulness has expired. Jake constructs his own plan which, with the help of Rachel and Erek, would both cripple the Yeerk Empire and neutralize Tom as a threat. It doesn't quite work out that neatly.
In A Brother's Price, the method for preventing a Cycle of Revenge triggered by executing traitor parents while leaving their children alive is to... execute the children too. Ren finds this monstrous and distressing, but she does have to admit that no one will take in little Eldie Porter and if she does, the child will surely resent Ren's little sisters and future children and probably try to take revenge on them. And a five-year-old will not fare well if turned out on the streets. Fortunately the Whistlers are nearby and listening; their great-grandmothers were executed for treason but, because the family was so mixed and not cohesive, not all of their grandmothers were killed, and the family went on to serve the crowns without resentment. So they adopt the child.
In the novel by Robert brown The Paradise Prophecy,the deuteragonist Sebastian takes a third option when an apopalyptic prophecy is about to be fulfilled. He can either kill Jenna himself or he can let Jenna kill herself, as she is about to do because Belial is both encouraging her and holding her hostage. Instead he Decapitates Belial, which turns out to have been the right choice, as it was a test to see whether humans had any humanity left in them.
At the climax of Clockwork Angels, the protagonist has to decide between joining the freedom loving, but aggressive and uncompromising Anarchist or joining the serene, but extremely rigid and precise Clockmaker. owen hardy decides to say screw it to both of them, steals one of the airships during the battle and flees.
The Host: The humans do this when they implant Wanderer into another human host whose original personality didn't survive rather than either killing her or sending her to another Soul controlled planet like she wanted them to.
In Wody Głębokie Jak Niebo Severo is faced with a dilemma to either execute the women he loves, for practicing magic (which is forbidden for women), or let her live and be forced to flee with her from his kingdom. He takes the third option by merging her with a demon. He can keep her by his side as his wife, since she (or at least her mind) is technically dead.
In the classic short story First Contact by Murray Leinster, an exploratory ship with humans unexpectedly, and far from home, runs into a ship of aliens on the same sort of mission. Both groups discover they have a lot in common physically and psychologically, and realize they can't take the risk on letting the other find out where their respective home worlds are. Because they don't know about each other enough for trust, their choices are limited to either trying to preemptively attacking the other (which won't work because both are expecting it), or trying to make a run for home which will also result in battle because the running ship will have to engage the pursuing ship before it finds out where it's going, and the pursuing ship would want to destroy the running one before it could reveal there was someone else out there once they'd found out where where it was going. Both crews eventually hit on the third option: switch ships, after first ensuring that their own weapons systems have been destroyed, (so that the other crew couldn't use them when they occupied the ship), and that all data on their ship which could be used to find their home world was erased. With confidence that the two ships can't attack each other, the two crews go their separate ways in peace.
The Obernewtyn Chronicles. In The Farseekers Elspeth and the group can either take the main pass or an "olden way" through the mountains. Or raft down the dangerous river...
In the McAuslan story Captain Errol, Lieutenant MacNeill and his platoon of Highlanders are sent to prevent Arab rioters from crossing a bridge. MacNeill doesn't want to fire on the mob — even injuring the leader will lead to bad PR — but the rioters aren't stopping and MacNeill is A Father to His Men. Luckily, another officer appears at this point. His third option is to make it appear as if he is about to blow up the bridge, by carrying an empty ammo box and roll of wire to the center. The mob dissipates at once, without bloodshed.
Used subtly in Lenobia's Vow. A bishop and an abbess are discussing the vampyres' presence in New Orleans, which the bishop considers "blasphemy". The abbess is faced with a dilemma: does she disagree with the bishop (thus starting a tedious argument) or agree with him and lie about her beliefs? Her response is to shrug and reply, "Some say so, some say so."