Are your Characters Reactive or Proactive?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been beta reading a YA novel for a good writer friend of mine. After reading the first few of chapters, I  come to the conclusion that I didn’t like the protagonist. In fact, my dislike was such that, if I were reading for enjoyment only, I would have put the book down. My first thought was that the character needed to be made more likeable. However, as I read on, I realised that my response was unfair. And by the time I reached the end of the book, I had come to the conclusion that I was wrong to suggest that the character should be changed in any way.

Did I come to love the character? No. Not at all.

But I did realise why I didn’t like the character.

The protagonist of this purposely unnamed book is purely reactive. The character at no point takes charge, develops a plan, or takes any action that isn’t directly prompted by another character. And, put simply, I don’t like purely reactive characters any more than I like purely reactive people. But that’s not to say that reactive characters are bad. There are plenty of stories with reactive (or even passive) protagonists, and the “passive character takes control of her own life” trope is a very familiar one. It’s just not one that I personally enjoy.

But my enjoyment, or lack thereof, is not a stain on the writing in this YA novel. The protagonist is consistent throughout the story, has a distinctive voice, and is so authentic that I’m pretty sure this person is living their own life in an alternate dimension somewhere. (Or possibly New Zealand.) And, really, isn’t that what we’re all aiming for with our characters: consistency, distinctiveness and authenticity?

My dislike of the character was purely subjective. It’s not up to the author to change the character to suit me.  The only reason the author should consider making any changes is if the intention was to have a proactive rather than reactive character. 

As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to see our characters the same way other people see them. To us, they’re perfect works of art, even more endearing for their faults and flaws. And it can be hard to tell whether they’re being proactive or reactive when there’s a mad slasher or serial killer hunting down all their friends and family (mwah ha ha ha ha!). So, here are some questions you may like to consider if you’d like to determine where in the reactive-proactive spectrum your character fits.

What is your character’s goal before the story starts?

We all know that we should start a story as close to the action as possible, right? But we also all know that if we start too close to the action (in media res, as it were), there’s a chance we’ll alienate readers who have no reason to care whether our young Jedi is captured and tortured by the Empire. So what is your character like in his normal life?

If he’s sitting around waiting to see what life throw at him, or he spends all his time following in the footsteps of his friends and family, or is drifting aimlessly through life without a goal or plan (apparently waiting for a story to begin), there’s a pretty good chance he’s more reactive than proactive.

But if the character is working to achieve a goal, whether or not it’s story-related, he’s more likely to be a proactive character.

Note: This goal doesn’t have to be something big like “to save the world” (or even “to destroy the world”). It could be something as simple as “to get good grades so I can get into college” or “to be the prettiest girl at the Prom” or “to hit the target at the firing range”. The key here is that the character is taking action to achieve his goal, not waiting for it to happen through divine intervention or good old-fashioned luck.

What does your character do during down-time?

Almost every novel has it: down-time. That moment between the adrenalin-fuelled car chase and the point where the slasher leaps out of the tree-line and drags the protagonist’s boyfriend into the undergrowth. It’s a chance for the characters (and the reader) to take a deep breath and process everything that’s just happened. It’s often the point where characters share information, or plot their next move, or take advantage of the lull in death-dealing to “celebrate the wonder of life”. (Cue the sleazy electric guitar.)

So, how does your character behave in the lull? If she takes the opportunity to sit quietly and cry, or goes along with someone else’s suggestion, or her entire plan revolves around waiting to see what happens next, she’s probably a reactive character.

A proactive character is likely to be the one leading the conversation, making plans that include the theme (if not the words) “the best defence is a good offense”, or even taking the opportunity to return to her pre-story goals: “Yes, I know there’s a mad slasher out there. But if I don’t cleanse and moisturise every day, Laura Pringle will look hotter than me at the dance and I’ll never live it down!”

How does your character make choices?

A good story always involves hard choices. Perhaps they don’t seem hard from the outside, but in the character’s mind, they’re huge: “Do I go to the D&D Convention with my friends like I do every year, or go to the Country Club with my cousin in the hopes that I’ll see the girl of my dreams?”  Sometimes the choices are life-altering. Sometimes they’re story-altering. And sometimes they seem to have no bearing on the story… until they do. “Wait, you mean if I’d chosen Strawberry topping, you wouldn’t have torched my car? Damn it! I don’t even like chocolate!” So, when faced with a decision, how does your character decide?

A reactive character is more likely to do what’s “easiest” or “more immediate”. If choosing between two love interests, the reactive character will go with the one in front of him right now. Or the one who tries the hardest to woo him. Or the one that his friends tell him he should go with. Alternately, he won’t make a choice at all — at least, not until he’s either forced to do so by outside events (“Declare your undying love for me, or I’ll start drowning kittens! “) or one of the options is removed (“Now that Laura is dead, you have to love me!”).

A proactive character will make a choice. It may not be the right choice (and often isn’t), but it’s a choice nonetheless: “I’ve considered my options and have decided that I’m really in love with the evil, but incredibly sexy, vampire, and not the sweet girl-next-door who’s always been there for me. How could anything possibly go wrong?”

How does your character resolve the story?

At the end of the book, the plot and character arcs should (ideally) all tie themselves up into a delightful little thing we call a “resolution”, leaving minimal loose threads hanging around for people to trip over. This generally comes straight after the final conflict (or climax) of the story. So, what’s your character’s role in all of this?

A) What do you mean “role”? She’s too busy hiding behind the cupboard desperately hoping the police arrived in time to save her from the pushy hat-salesman to actually do anything. 

B) Her role is to get captured so the antagonist can give his well-prepared monologue. Then she begs for her life, but the antagonist ignores her. Then her boyfriend/the police show up and save her, capturing the bad guy and high-fiving each other all the while. But it’s not really a plan, it’s just what happens.

C) It depends. What does everyone else think her role should be?

D) Fed up with being chased around the College Campus like a rat through a maze, she plots out a Scooby-Doo-esque trap, using herself as bait, and lures the bad guy into an abandoned warehouse where she drops a cage on him, coats him in honey, and releases the dogs with bees in their mouths. Sadly it all goes horribly wrong and the dogs end up being stung by honey-coated bees, but it’s the thought that counts. And then she confronts him mano-a-womano.

Hint: Only one of these is proactive. And it’s even better if you can tie in your proactive character’s starting goal with the final confrontation: “See, I am the prettiest girl here! Take that Magic Mirror!”

In Conclusion…

I’m not saying that proactive characters are better than reactive characters. (Although I am saying that I subjectively prefer proactive characters.) Just make sure that the character that ends up on paper is the same one that runs around screaming obscenities inside your head.

Oh… is that just me?

Leave me your comments, thoughts, or random abuse (if you disagree with me).

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31 Comments

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31 responses to “Are your Characters Reactive or Proactive?

  1. Wow, this is a fantastic blog post! I think you have a great approach to editing. I know when I’m reading or editing, or even writing, I constantly stop to ask myself why. Why don’t I like this character? Why is she like this? Why is she making this choice?

    You’ve definitely given me some things to think about the next time I write/edit. Again, great post!

  2. This is an excellent tutorial. I had never considered fictional writing- but I can see that there is deep process involved by the way you write about it. Thanks for the questions in this post that we need to ask ourselves….

    • Thanks, Tricia. I’m pretty sure that you said at one point that “proactive” is one of your favourite words, so hopefully you agreed with my take on it. 🙂

      Fiction writing takes a lot of learning and practice to get right, but the best writers make it look easy. You know, like most every other skill in the world.

  3. This is a very important question, since I get annoyed at reactive protags as much as you do. In the Ellery Queen novel I wrote about a week or two ago on my blog, the main character was almost a complete drip. She spent the whole book falling in love, being accused of murder, crying on some man’s shoulder, feebly protesting her innocence, being exonerated by someone else, having doubts about the guy she was in love with, being accused of murder again, etc. It was dismal. I was hoping someone would come along and murder her, but they all fell in love with her instead. For some reason that I couldn’t see.

    Also, I never thought about this before, but this is particularly important question for mystery writers, because detective characters are in a reactive position. Someone does something, the detective has to investigate it. The culprit does something else, the detective has to investigate that. That doesn’t mean the detective character is reactive, in terms of personality, but it makes it especially important for the writer to watch out for, since the structure of the genre tends toward reactiveness.

    This is one thing I like about my current project (which I will start posting soon): my protag (or at least the first one) is very proactive. We don’t know right away what her goal is, but she has one, and she’s pretty determined to achieve it. Then, after she achieves it, she chooses a much bigger one.

    Oh, and I loved your examples. I think that evil Laura Pringle deserved everything that happened to her. Whatever it was. 🙂

    • I read that post of yours, and made a note never to read that book. I would have wanted to slap her 5 minutes into the story. 🙂

      I think thrillers and mysteries are genres that easily lend themselves to more reactive characters, where it’s especially important to keep this question in mind. But, in saying that, the very act of investigating is a proactive act. The detective is immediately in a reactive position in relation to the culprit (unless it’s a “Minority Report” style sci-fi story) but that doesn’t mean that he/she needs to behave reactively, nor does it mean that he/she can’t have his/her own goals.

      (I have to admit, I’m a sucker in police dramas for the “competing with another team to see who solves the most cases” trope. Especially at the point where the competition inevitably causes their investigations to go horribly wrong.)

  4. Dan

    Excellent post, and I also prefer proactive characters to reactive ones. In fact, I might go so far as to say that if your protagonist is purely reactive, then you picked the wrong character to be your protagonist.

    Certainly, you can have a viewpoint character who is purely reactive, but I always felt that your protagonist is the one whose decisions drive the plot forward. I confess I don’t have much literary analysis to back that up, but if the main character is just riding along then I don’t think it’s much of a story.

    • Dan, if you ever need an example of protag=proactive & viewpoint character=reactive, just use Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Classic example of how the dynamic can work. 🙂

    • I agree, on a subjective level. But I’ve also read enough paranormal romance to know that there are plenty of published books where the lead character seems to do nothing more than sit around looking attractive while she waits to be rescued, sigh deeply, and consider which of the strong, unflawed men she should fall in love with. (It generally turns out to be the one who isn’t secretly evil — thus the “making choices” example above.)

      Reactive characters are very obvious in that genre, but I’ve also come across purely reactive characters in Thrillers as well. In that case, it’s harder to immediately tell — I just know that I don’t like the character very much. It often becomes apparent during the resolution where the protag needs to be rescued by someone else, or is otherwise saved in a dramatic deus ex machina.

  5. Ben Trube

    Do you think it is possible for a character to switch between these roles but remain consistent to their personality? Example: When thrust into a situation alone we may choose to try to find out what’s happening and make a plan of action. But what if, mid-crisis, someone else comes along with much more command of the situation and an obvious air of authority?

    This is probably more of a question of dominance than reaction but I think they are related issues. I think what’s interesting to explore in these situations is how the main character asserts and grabs back the proactive rather than the passive stance.

    Love the post, very dense with a lot of good ideas. I’m struggling with breathers and where to drop into the action in my current revision right now, and would love to see an expansion on that theme.

    • I definitely think it’s possible to create a consistent character who alternately takes the lead and lets someone else lead. The fact is, no one is good at everything. (Sad but true.) I guess the difference between being proactive and reaction (or active and passive) in that example would be shown in the protag’s internalisation. If the protag makes a conscious choice to step back and let someone else use their expertise, that’s still a proactive action (see: making choices above).

      As for the expansion on using breathers and action scenes, stay tuned.

      • I think any character who always took the lead or always held back wouldn’t be realistic. In people, it’s usually a mixture (except for the girl in the EQ novel I talked about above 🙂 ). But, like people, characters tend to be more one or the other.

        And, yes, in answer to the other comment, investigating is a proactive act. My detective character would (at least in her earlier life — she has more responsibilities now) drop anything and go anywhere in the world if there was a crime to solve or a story to write. She’s definitely on the proactive side, and her assistant (her “Watson”) is more reactive, though he can assert himself, too. He’s actually more like her Archie Goodwin. 🙂

  6. Great post! I am constantly checking that my characters are at least driving some of the action. Even if I think they are, other people’s interpretations really vary. I had one friend who was annoyed that my main character dared try to improve the business at her new job–he felt she was overstepping her duties. Really? I thought. You are upset that a character is going above the minimum of what’s expected of her in order to help out her employer? Really? That’s turning off of this character? That she’s helpful and proactive? That was when the lightning bulb went off (yet again). You can’t bloody please everybody.

    The truth is, most readers are not aware of the protagonist driving the action versus being buoyed along. But they will judge the shit out of the character’s every choice. Most readers want a Sherlock/JamesBond-type protagonist. In a female novel, you may know this character by her female name, Mary sue.

    Mary Sue never ever takes shit from anyone. She knows kung fu and she always has a snappy comeback and she’s cool as hell and doesn’t give a fig, except for at night, when she beds down in her tree and ponders her love triangle and the hardship of having to choose between two amazing boys who both adore her.

    If you write a novel like that, with a Sherlock/JamesBond/MarySue, you’ll have a hit. Don’t forget to give her a flaw, though, like maybe she’s too perfect and men are intimidated by her.

    🙂 Have a great weekend!!

  7. I was struggling with this recently. As I’m outlining my novel, I found that the protagonist was often pulled along by events that were beyond her control or comprehension… and I was worried that I had a reactive protagonist that wasn’t going to be very interesting or impressionable to readers.

    So I tried to take a hard look at the story and at the character. And I realized that, yes, there’s some stuff that goes down beyond her initial control or comprehension. But she starts off with a goal (“I don’t want to marry ‘X’ because he’s a tool”) that she acts on, which is part of what gets the action kicked off. And as I got a little further in the outline, her capabilities increased, giving her more comprehension and/or control over things… which enables her to make her own decisions rather than just reacting and getting dragged along. So I think she’s a hybrid model protagonist.

    • Tamara Paulin

      Have her punch someone in the mouth immediately in the first chapter so people know she won’t be takin’ no guff from nobody.

      I kid, I kid! Don’t have her punch anyone! That will turn off 34.72% of readers. Don’t make her a blonde with green eyes, either, as that turns off 14.13% of readers under 35.

    • If the story never would have happened without the protag deciding to act on their own goal, you’ve definitely not got a reactive character! But I know exactly what you mean — especially in spec fic sub-genres where there’s a lot of magical/technological information beyond the character’s experience, it’s easy for him/her to be swept along by events. I think that’s okay (who wouldn’t be overwhelmed in that situation?) as long as you make use of the down-time parts of the story to re-establish that the character has their own thoughts and goals. (And, of course, that he/she is actively involved in the climax/resolution!)

      No real person is always proactive or always reactive — I think the important thing is to find a balance that tilts in the direction that you want your character to go, rather than trying to make sure that they behave one way or the other at every moment of the story.

  8. This was the perfect post for me to read right now…I’m actually in the midst of revising my YA manuscript and as I poured over your words, I kept asking myself…

    Is this true of Lily? Is she making choices? Taking action? Letting life happen to her?

    I think my answers were good ones. So thank you for the gut check. Or the check list. Or whatever you want to call it.

    Most especially, thanks for being a careful, conscientious, thoughtful reader /writer who shares her insights.

    Fingers crossed…

  9. Pingback: Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out | The Happy Logophile

  10. glenn

    I’ve been struggling with character desire in my screenplay. Your article was a great help. I googled reactive character vs. proactive character and found your piece. thanx.

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