Active vs. Passive Characters
|Strong like bull...or strong like 15 pound weight.|
In my first edition of writing tips, A-to-Z, I thought I'd start off A with A
ctive vs. Passive characters. One of the main issues I find when reading unpublished manuscripts is that many first-time writers have a hard time creating active main characters. Active main characters are essential to your story. If your protagonist is not actively making changes in your story, the plot will remain at a standstill. A good main character will drive
the action of the novel and move the plot forward so to keep the reader interested.
How can you tell if your main character is active? Ask yourself these questions:
1. Does his desire drive the action of the novel?
2. Is he constantly making decisions or is someone else making the decisions for him?
3. Does he seem to be forced into situations without the ability to make a choice one way or the other?
4. Do the other characters look to him for guidance?
5. Do his actions directly
change the course of the novel?
If you have answered no
to any of these questions (or "someone else
" to question 2 for you literalists), then you need to involve your character more directly in the story. Otherwise, your novel is going to feel like a series of wild, unrelated events, which is something only expert satirists with talking flowerpots
can get away with. More importantly, your novel may be feeling the Hand Of God
Hand Of God |handəvgäd|
1. When an author forces their characters to dance around the plot of the novel like puppets, even if their actions do not correspond with the characters' personal desires or motivations.
2. When an author makes certain events happen because the author wants
them to happen, even if said events do not make logical sense in the progression of the novel.
3. Anne Rice changes religions, so Lestat goes straight.
Readers, believe it or not, are smarter than that. They can tell when there's a man behind the curtain twisting all the switches and nobs. The Hand Of God will make your novel lose it's organic
feel and replace it with something that feels like a means to an end. The only way to counteract this is to make sure your main character is actively changing the course of the novel in a way that makes sense.
Here are five tips to making sure your protagonist (main character) is active:
1. Define your main character's want.
Once you know what your main character wants
, you will know his motivation. His want
can be anything from the love of his life to a cup of tea. Whatever it is, make sure it's something that will motivate him, otherwise he'll spend the whole novel sitting on the couch eating Cheetos (note: your main character's want
can be to get off the couch and stop eating Cheetos. Look how easy a want
2. Write a list ways for your main character to try to achieve his want (and fail).
Think of your novel as a very large learning curve for your character. All the ways I failed to create the light bulb
. The more your character fails, the more satisfying it will be when he actually succeeds
in reaching his goal. Come up with a list of as many things you can think of that will stop your main character from getting what he wants. They can be huge problems, small problems, silly problems, anything. These will be an easy reference that should inspire you in case you find yourself at a loss with where to go next (ex: I want
to get off the couch, but it's too comfortable, my leg is in a cast, and I've got a severe addiction to Cheetos).
3. Put your main character in situations that force him to make hard choices.
The worst thing you can do for your character is to make anything easy
for him. Don't let him get off scott free. Put blockades in his way. As many as you can find. Even better, have an antagonist (villain) that will constantly stop him from getting what he wants. This villain can be a real person, a group of people, or even something broad and foreboding (an ongoing war). The villain can even be a trait within the main character themselves, such as addiction or insecurity (after all, we are all our own worst enemies).
4. Have your character make the wrong choice.
Let's face it: no one likes a goody-two-shoes. If your character makes all the easy choices (right vs. wrong, lightside vs. darkside, The Beatles or Hannah Montana), you're going to have a hard time keeping the reader's interest. Give your character some grey-area decisions (freedom of speech vs. banning bigotry, personal safety vs. experiencing new things, love vs. overprotective, Oreos vs. Chips Ahoy). This is where your character will be able to show their real stripes and make some decisions the reader may not
agree with. This is okay. Your character now has something to angst over and has the whole rest of the novel to redeem himself.
5. Don't let anyone force your character to do something.
Naturally, it's a lot easier to had a bunch of bad vagabonds steal your princess away from her home and force her into a new style of living, but that's not a story. The real story begins when the princess realizes that the vagabonds are not vagabonds at all, but people she has more in common with than her own family. Her personal struggle
to chose her family in the castle or the "vagabonds" will be the force that drives the rest of the story. You can throw a couple hurtles at her: she falls in love with one of the vagabonds, her father falls on his deathbed and his last request is to see her return to the castle, her step-mother puts out a reward for her head and the heads of her vagabond friends if she doesn't return. No matter what the hurtles are, at the end of the day, she
has to be the one who decides her own fate. Otherwise, she's a weak and wimpy protagonist and the readers can't figure out why they picked up the book in the first place.
With these five steps, your main character should be well on his way to get off that couch and into the action of the novel. As soon as he kicks his Cheetos addiction.
who was the protagonist in The Great Gatsby?