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're 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're going to see, because by the time they've decided (reluctantly) which one to pick, the cinema will have closed.
They are hugely frustrating in friendships, and even more so in relationships. Interestingly, in fiction, this character is more likely to be female in most contexts — but in romance, it's usually the male character who "can't commit." These characters 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 their 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. Leaving it alone, as someone else will deal with it eventually.
- Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: The character is too easily distracted to focus on any kind of decision.
- 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 "Just Plain Lazy" types have a degree of sympathy, but in societies that value self-direction and assertiveness, the inability to make decisions quickly is A Bad Thing, a hallmark of immaturity or lack of character. Societies that favour thought and reason, however, tend to be more sympathetic, as long as it is clear the Ditherer is really thinking about it and not dodging the issue.
Because men are supposed to take action, men perpetually dithering may get less sympathy than women. Particularly so in romance genres, when a woman's indecision may be played for Moe points. 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.
- The male lead in pretty much any Harem Genre work in general will be a ditherer of some type (usually a wishy-washy variant) to justify why he never makes a choice. The female lead of a Reverse Harem series is likely to dally just as much.
- 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.
- 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.
- In early Gantz, the main characters are forced to make weighty moral decisions. In the anime version, this leads to entire minutes of dithering.
- Hidamari Sketch: Yuno (Insecure) doesn't have much faith in her own decisions — she prefers to negotiate with her housemates.
- Macross Delta: Heinz Windermere is a fence-sitting type. Windermere has started a war in the name of galactic domination; and since he is the king, Heinz cannot afford second thoughts but doesn’t entirely agree with the idea of aggressive expansion. Unfortunately, because he is more useful as a Wind Singer than as an authority figure, he has to defer to Roid for the actual ruling of Windermere. In the later episodes, he makes his choice and boy, is it a wrong one.
- 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.
- This is played as a gag with Elma in the Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid anime. She is shown to have problem deciding which flavor she wants when ordering food, and ends up buying all of the available options. She is even frustrated about choosing what toothpaste to use when all three options are fruit flavored.
- The band of Sound! Euphonium has a serious problem with dithering — and the more talented or important the student, the more likely they are to dither. The show comments on this, as several characters get called out on their "selfish" indecision.
- Protagonist Kumiko is the Wishy-washy / Insecure type. Whether it's talking to someone or committing to a task, she usually needs someone else to kick her up the backside in order to get anywhere. She didn't want to join the band...but wandered into joining anyway because her friends did, after an episode of indecision. She wanted to play something other than the euphonium she'd played until then, and pretends to be a beginner. That almost works...until an old friend outs her as an experienced euphonium player, and the bass section leader, Asuka, easily bullies her into resuming her old role. This reflects that she's neither a go-getter nor a slacker in terms of her music — she just goes with the flow.
- Speaking of Asuka, despite being bossy and charismatic, she maintains that she's the Too-Many-Trees variant, refusing to take a side in any dispute. It's hinted that this might be a ploy to dodge responsibility, though.
- Club president Haruka is the Empathic / Insecure type. She feels badly suited to the role of president, since tough decisions scare her, but someone has to do it. She has a good reason to be wary though — she saw first hand what happens when the wrong or controversial calls are made.
- The whole band can turn into a bunch of music-playing ditherers when decisions have to be made. When they choose a goal, very few are actually committed to their decision, and, when Kaori and Reina re-compete for a solo and they are given the power to decide, only four people have the courage to actually make a call (two of whom are the usual ditherers!). This is despite the fact that the only reason the pair had to re-audition in the first place was because the band kept whining about the teacher's original decision until he decided to put it to a vote.
- 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.
- Hard Reset shows Twilight 'coping' with the results of the story, and breaking down into a Too Many Trees / Shell-Shocked Veteran version of this.
'How did I ever stand living like this, where everything I do is so bucking permanent?'
- In a million miles of fun, Zaheer is that guy who takes his sweet time ordering, for reasons that seem closest to "can't see the forest; too many trees." It's implied that this is par for the course for him.
- 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 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.
- As the page quote above demonstrates, President Skroob from Spaceballs.
- 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 backstory of A Brother's Price includes a civil war that was caused, partly, by a ditherer. The society has sororal polygyny, but at one time, the eldeset princesses took one husband, and the youngest princesses took another. (This is described as "splitting the family"). It turned out that the husband of the eldest set of princesses was infertile, so the youngest wanted their daughters to inherit. The problem could have been easily resolved by divorcing the infertile husband (who, at that point, asked for it, as he didn't want to be responsible for a war) and marrying one who was fertile, but the woman on whom the decision hinged dithered so much that it came to a war. Apparently she was a habitual ditherer, and couldn't make a decision to save her life, literally.
- 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.
- Oswald Nelvil, the main character of Corinne, is the Insecure type. The death of his father leaves him deeply depressed tormented by the notion that he was a poor son to the man. This causes him to become apathetic and withdrawn, fearful of offending his dead father, and therefore unwilling to act on his love for the titular Corinne, a woman he is certain the elder Nelvil would disapprove of.
- 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.
- I, Claudius: 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.
- 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.
- Extreme Doormat Bertie Wooster is the Insecure/Submissive type with shades of Cloudcuckoolander. He typically lets Jeeves handle his decisions and run his life for him, which leads to a Lampshade Hanging from Aunt Dahlia in one story: "What earthly use do you suppose you are without Jeeves, you poor ditherer?"
- Lieutenant Hornblower has the weak-willed first lieutenant Buckland launched to Acting-Captain when the insane Captain Saywer is incapacitated by a fall. Buckland is completely unprepared and hesitates to make any decision that he'll have to accept responsibility for, vacillating and running to the safest option at every opportunity. It takes a lot of persuasion from Hornblower (and even prodding from Bush) to make him commit to a decisive course of action.
- Andromeda from The Mark Of The Tala. After their rather violent Meet Cute, Rayfe appeals to the princess to comply with their families' treaty and return with him to Annwyn. He then uses all (hard-nosed) attempts available to him, from Talking in Your Dreams to Storming the Castle, to move her to decide whether to join him willingly or be Kidnapped by an Ally.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Archie Jones from White Teeth is so indecisive the he often resorts to flipping a coin.
- Martin in Absolute Power is the lazy version; it's Charles's job to make decisions.
- Both Jeff Winger and Britta Perry from Community meet this trope in slightly different ways:
Shirley: Will you two commit to something for a change?!
- 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:
- Wembley on Fraggle Rock is the Insecure/Submissive version. In fact, his name is used In-Universe as a verb for indecisiveness.
- One of the band members in Hallo Spencer. Typical quote: "Well, on the one hand... but on the other hand..."
- The second series of Horatio Hornblower is based on Lieutenant Hornblower, with the weak-willed and indecisive Buckland propelled to Acting-Captain. He's much the same as he was in the book: vacillating, unwilling to take risks, and jumping for what looks like the easiest option. The show also adds a good bit of unhappy self-awareness at his mediocrity and a lot of envy towards his subordinate Hornblower's quick mind and natural leadership.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sid Dithers from SCTV is the Cloud Cuckoolander variant. It doesn't help that he is short, hearing-impaired, and near-sighted.
- Chidi from The Good Place, mainly of the "can't see the forest for the trees" variety. Flashbacks show that he is unable to make even the simplest decisions, from picking teams for soccer to ordering at a restaurant because he's terrified of how it can be perceived, how he will be judged and the consequences and it costs him relationships, jobs and friends. It's his Fatal Flaw, literally, as it turns out; he died when he was hit by an air conditioner while deciding what to do. The season finale also reveals that this is why he's in the Bad Place as his constant inability to make any decisions drove everyone around him miserable.
Chidi: Did I at least pick the right hat?Judge: There was no "right one!" They're hats, come on, man!
- In season 2, Chidi is given a test to simply make a decision between two hats. He is told he failed and when he asks why, the judge snaps "It took you eighty-two minutes to pick a hat!
- 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.
- Peanuts: Charlie Brown, who is often referred to as wishy-washy.
- 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. While his initial indecision was forgivable (how do you know if it's your father's ghost or a demon trying to get you to damn yourself by murdering an innocent?), when he had the clear opportunity to kill Claudius, Hamlet didn't take it because he thought his uncle was trying to repent of his crimes and he wanted Claudius to die in full damnation. "Now might I do it pat," he says, but never does until it's too late, and gets himself and 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.
- The climax of 1776 pivots on the dithering of James Wilson, Pennsylvania's third delegate who is caught between independence man Ben Franklin and reconciliation man John Dickinson—Wilson prefers established precedence over the risk of new ideas. Usually, Wilson is just Dickinson's Yes-Man, but Franklin calls for a poll of individual delegates to leave Wilson on his own. Realizing he can be the man to sink independence or just another signature on the Declaration, Wilson chooses the latter. (This is Dated History—at the time, the writers couldn't find any writings to explain Wilson's abrupt switch. Now it's known that Wilson was an independence man himself who was waiting for information from his constituents to make sure they wanted it too.)
- 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.
- Dragon Age II: Sebastian Vael spends most of the game in doubt and unable to choose any course of action.
- The unnamed car-driving stick figure (likely a Blah Guy) from The Demented Cartoon Movie is one of these to the point of being Too Dumb to Live.
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.)
- In El Goonish Shive, Elliot is an submissive type with elements of the emphatic and lazy types. He relies on Sarah to make all of the decisions in their relationship, defaults to asking other people's preferences when he's asked to make a decision, and lastly hates traveling, all indicating that prefers predictable situations where he doesn't have to make many decisions.
- Piro of Megatokyo knows he's a wishy-washy type (and every other character in the series is very quick to remind him of it) and hates himself for it.
- A hallmark of Marten's characterization from Questionable Content. This comic about sums it up.
- 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, and a Deus ex Machina takes care of the remaining issue.
- In the PBS animated series of The Berenstain Bears, when issues are brought before the town council, the response from the person leading the meeting is always as follows: "X is of great concern to our town council and I can assure you we will reach a decision on the matter at the appropriate time..."
- Gadget of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers has trouble settling on one decision in "Gadget Goes Hawaiian."
- In one episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog, the Thinker turns out to be one of these.
- Adventures of the Gummi Bears: Believe it or not, Tummi Gummi actually fell into this trope in the episode "The Fence Sitter."
- The Legend of Korra: Mako has this problem, of the "can't commit" type, being torn between Korra and Asami and of just avoiding confrontation in general.
Cousin Tu: Really? That again? Ya know, it seems like you're so afraid about disappointing anyone that you end up disappointing everyone.
Prince Wu: Truer words have never been spoken... HIGH FIVE!
- The Mike, Lu & Og episode "Flustering Footwear Flotsam" had the natives of Albonquetine discover footwear, each of them facing a problem now that they have the option to wear shoes. Wendel's problem is that he is unable to decide which of two pairs of shoes to wear.
- From Mixels is Camillot. Being heir to the throne, he's always had servants take care of himself, but his father, the king, decided the only way for him to rise to the fore was to try and make decisions for himself...which took him a while, as he could hardly figure out what foot to use for his first step. However, throughout the course of the episode, he's forced to make quick decisions, which thankfully end up saving the day.
- 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.
- Played With in the Thunder Cats 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 insistence that he doesn't care is undermined by the aid he gives while saying so.
- 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.
- 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.
- People who lose the ability to experience emotion (often due to some sort of brain damage) have been observed to suffer from the "too many trees" variation of this. Because they literally can't have a preference for, say, where to go out for dinner, they just keep on comparing and contrasting the options until someone steps in and makes the decision for them.