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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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