Thoughts on Writing – Active Vs Passive Protagonists

Sometimes, when writing or reading a story, we run into protagonists who fall flat. Protagonists who seem boring or uninteresting, and we just can’t figure out why.

One possibility is that they aren’t playing an active role in the story.

It’s tough to avoid. As a writer, you may very well have a plot you want to convey. You want your character to follow the plot so you can show your readers all the cool stuff in your world.

Sometimes, you choose the wrong protagonist.

I’m a big fan of Janice Hardy’s book, Planning Your Novel. One of the things she talks about is choosing a character who has stakes in the story. Who has the most to lose? Who is going to be the most involved? Who has the point of view most interesting for you to tell?

Another thing to look for? Which character can be actively involved for convincing reasons.

One way to find an active character is to examine which of your characters are willing to act to get what they want.

Maybe they want to protect their sister from certain death (Hunger Games), so they volunteer themselves for a near-suicidal death game. Or maybe they want to choose how they die and not leave it to chance, so they attempt to jettison themselves from an airlock (Better World by Autumn Kalquist).

They’ve got to have desires which are being blocked from them. And regardless, they have to try to get around those blocks.

It doesn’t have to be life-and-death situations. Maybe a character wants to find true love, and so they sneak into a masquerade they would normally avoid. Or maybe they want to solve a crime because they’re reminded of how a family member was killed years ago, and they think it’s the same killer. They want to prevent it from happening again, so they sneak into the scene of the crime at the end of the night.

Point is, an active character has something they want. A goal to be achieved.

An active character will take action on that goal. They don’t just let things happen.

(Note: If your character achieves their goal without making it happen because of what they did, the reader is going to feel cheated at the end of the story.)

It can be easy to let the setting and plot drag them along. Really easy. For example: Oh, hey! I’ve been kidnapped and taken to a rebel camp. And they need fighters, so I’m going to join them in battle even though I have no reason to trust them! And guess what, it just so happens that someone I trusted is really an evil evil bad guy, and they think I’m important for some unknown reason… Yeah…an early draft of one of our stories might have sounded a bit like that before we edited it… Acting on personal motives are important. Even when a character is being tossed around by external forces, they shouldn’t just react. They should actively take a role in the events being played.

The nice thing is that a character’s internal conflicts can push them to act against external forces they might usually ignore.

Let’s take a look at the earlier example of a character who wants to find true love. Maybe internally he’s afraid of being alone, and he feels that if he never finds love, he’ll be alone forever. The catalyst could be that a close friend finds a “perfect” love, and leaves the protagonist behind.

Driven by loneliness, this protagonist determines to sneak into a masquerade where he might meet the true love of his life. (He actively makes this choice and then proceeds to try to go to the masquerade).

He doesn’t have to successfully make it into the masquerade. In fact, it might be more interesting if he doesn’t. (Conflict!)

So our protagonist tries to go in the normal route, but he’s not invited. (Why not? Is he of the wrong societal class? Wasn’t invited because he accidentally showed up the host of the house with a super cool invention? These reasons could play an important role in the coming conflict.)

This protagonist has the option to turn back and go home, giving up on his dreams (Leading into a tragedy, perhaps?). Or he could scale the back wall of the manor and sneak into someone’s chambers, planning to slip into the masquerade unnoticed.

Maybe the room is dark, and he thinks it’s empty. He sneaks into the hall and proceeds to the masquerade, moving along with his goals. He is going to that masquerade, and he is going to dance with anyone who will give him the chance.

And maybe, just maybe, his true love will be there.

He’s actively pursuing his goals.

But what if he instead stumbles in on a secret meeting to overthrow the lord of the house… and they threaten to kill him if he doesn’t participate. And hey, since he snuck inside, no one will believe him if he’s caught poisoning the lord and blames the conspirators.

Now that he’s been dragged into a larger conflict that he has no interest in, it’s easy to let a character be buffeted around without acting on their own behalf, which can quickly get boring. Even if he’s forced to be involved, we should still see him act on his internal conflicts and goals.

Back to the story. Our protagonist now has an additional goal: get through the night alive (which might supersede his goal of finding true love–at least for the moment. However, this internal goal is still going to influence his actions).

Maybe his goal now is to poison the lord as the secret group instructed. Perhaps he agrees that the current lord of the house is a scumbag, and the world would be better off without him. (And maybe he discovered someone he has a crush on is working in the group who just recruited him… so double the motivation for impressing them).

Alternatively, maybe he doesn’t want to poison the lord. Maybe he secretly likes the man, and the whole reason he was sneaking incognito into the masquerade was because he wanted a chance to meet the lord without societal rules getting between them.

And that means he now has an additional conflict. He needs to get close enough to the lord to warn him of the plot… without getting caught by the people who recruited him.

Or maybe he just ditches the whole plan altogether and does what he can to get out of the manor and run for the hills. (Downside… this feels unexciting. How does this fit with his internal goal of finding true love?)

Whatever this protagonist does, he needs to make the choice. There are times he may have to react to a situation, but even then, even when he’s forced into a corner, he should still explore options to get him back on track with his internal goals.

It helps if the antagonist of your story is in direct opposition to your protagonist’s goals. A character without conflict isn’t going to be so clearly taking actions to resolve a conflict if there is no conflict to resolve.

Your protagonist needs to want.

What would this example have looked like if our protagonist wasn’t actively taking a role?

Let’s go with the idea that our protagonist still wants to find true love. But instead of choosing to sneak into the masquerade himself, he mopes around until a friend drags him along. While there, he gripes a bit that no one there will interest him, and mostly stands in a corner until a dancer invites him to dance. He takes the invitation without really being interested, only to learn that the dancer really wants him to slip a pill into the lord’s drink.

Here, he has choices. Refuse (and have the assassins after him later), agree to poison the drink (and actually try to poison the lord), or agree (and then try to warn the lord instead).

This is a catalyst point. He’s been dragged into a conflict bigger than himself. But he still has his own internal goals.

The question is, does he stand up for himself? For his goals?

Or does he allow himself to be thrown around between plot points? Does he react to those points? Or does he push the plot points in his own direction?

Does he actively influence the plot?

If he doesn’t, and he doesn’t have a reason to act, then it’s going to be harder to keep him active. Say our protagonist isn’t looking for true love, and he’s just there because the friend dragged him there. Then when the conspirator tells him to put a pill in the lord’s drink, he does so, because otherwise they plan to kill him. But he’s just meandering along, following what everyone else is telling him to do without making any choices of his own.

At this point, the protagonist really needs to be the one to try to poison the lord or warn him. If he steps back and lets his friend do all the work, or if it just happens that the lord overhears him say something about the conspiracy and that saves the day, then it’s not going to be satisfying. Sure, he had the information, but he wasn’t actively choosing to do something with the information he had.

(That’s not to say it can never work. You might have a comedy in which the hero is bumbling along and causes all sorts of elaborate stuff to happen. But would it be nearly as funny if we didn’t know he was actually trying to do something entirely different and mundane?)

The actions a the protagonist takes should influence the events of a story, Some things may be out of their control, and they will react, but at the same time, they should also act per their own motivations.

Protagonists and antagonists work against each other to create a dynamic story with active characters. Side characters with strong motivations can help create plot twists and keep the story from feeling flat. Internal motives are important to driving stories, and helps to create interesting conflict.

I hope you found this post helpful.:-)

Have you read any stories or run into any problems trying to write a character who just wasn’t being active in the plot?

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Behind the Scenes – The Quarter Horse

A cover for Melange Books’s YA imprint, Fire and Ice. This is the fourth book in The Horse Rescuers series, and so we wanted to keep the style the same as the other books. In this case, we kept the same layout and font. We tried a couple different colors as the main color scheme (each book is a bit different), and ultimately settled on the gray-blue.

For the horse image, I used the art form to reference the kind of horse the author wanted, and then I created a lightbox on Dreamstime with several horse options (and I checked to see what general season I should be looking for). The author selected two of those images, which I made rough proofs. Once we narrowed it down, I finalized the cover.

This is the end result:

Behind the Scenes - The Quarter Horse

Rough version of the back cover (subject to change per the Publisher’s needs):

The Quarter Horse - Back Cover Blog

Stock photo from Dreamstime. – horse

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Thoughts on Writing – Naming Your Character

In my previous post, I talked about choosing the right attire for the characters in your world. Today, I want to talk a bit about naming.

We’ve all heard suggestions for basic naming conventions. These are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Make sure each name sounds/looks different (Varying syllabic emphasis can help here–pay attention to where you emphasize the name. “Anna” has a different emphasis than “Blayloc,” for instance).
  2. Don’t have the same first letter of their names for multiple characters in the same story (For example: Jenna, Jim, Jack, Janice… oh dear. Isaac and I may need to revisit Distant Horizon and change a few names…)
  3. If writing fantasy/science fiction, don’t have long, convoluted names. Or if you do, shorten them. (I’m looking at you Shevanlagiy… Bit of trivia, when I wrote the first draft of The Wishing Blade a decade ago, I copy-pasted her name each time I needed to type it. Probably should’ve taken that as a hint.)
  4. Don’t have two characters with the same name (Unless this is part of the plot, at which point you still want the readers to be able to easily tell them apart.)
  5. If your name has too nice of a ring to it, Google-search the name to make sure it’s not already taken. (I once created an original character whose name I later realized was very similar to a DeviantArt stock artist that I often used stock from).

When I originally created my main character for the Exiles role-play campaign that Isaac ran (a story set in the Distant Horizon universe, which we plan to write later), I named her Emily Johnson.

Worked for the campaign, but looking back, I’ve been debating changing her name. There are two reasons.

One, she is supposed to be of Asian heritage, and so I have considered giving her an Asian surname (I haven’t decided which particular culture–Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc…). However, given that she lives in a dystopian world where English names are encouraged, and there’s a good chance that somewhere along the line, her father/grandfather/great grandfather might not have been Asian, I’m not too worried about this one. Name makes sense for the world of the story. Now, in areas which aren’t under the Community’s control, the names you see are going to be a bit different.

However, there is another Emily in the story: Lady Emily Black. While most characters wouldn’t know her as Emily, if Isaac and I ever delve into that character’s youth, we’ll end up with two Emilys in the same universe. If they were stand-alone stories in different universes, I’m not sure it would be a problem. Same universe?

Could be confusing.

My initial response was to change the main character’s name. (After all, there’s a story purpose for “Emily” regarding the other character: her mother’s name was Emma, and she was named for her mother).

But let’s take a quick look at the culture of the world, in which Lady Emily Black is a well-known, highly respected diplomat (at least within the Community). Thus, it makes sense that a family might name their child after her, hoping that kid would pick up some of her better-known attributes (and indeed, both characters play the part of a peacekeeper between the people they work with).

Not only that, Lady Emily Black is typically known as Lady Black, with Emily being relatively unused (unless we ever go into writing her backstory).

Based on those factors, I’m considering keeping Emily’s name as it is. I might still to choose to change it, giving her a different surname or changing her first name to keep the characters a bit more separate, but right now, I think I’ve got another set of names to worry about.

Jenna, Jim, Jack, Janice…

But… I like their names! I’ve grown fond of them! They all fit the character!

*Sigh.* Something Isaac and I will have to discuss and decide if we need to change before we do our final round of edits.

It’s not like we’ve got Camaraderie/Coalition/Community in the same book–

Or Crush and Chill (both “C” names, both based on their superpowers)—

Um… I’ll get back to you on that.

I hope you enjoyed this post.:-)

Have you ever had to change the names of your characters for clarity? Would you change Emily’s name, or swap out the multiple “J” names a bit?

Looking for more naming tips? Try these articles:

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Thoughts on Writing – Considering Attire in World Building

Last weekend Isaac and I went to Planet Comicon as volunteers, and we had a lot of fun! During our off time, we got to see some cool panels, spent money in the vendor room (Always have a budget… it helps), and saw a neat cosplay.

However, the side-effect of going to Planet Comicon and NakaKon is the resulting desire to write and draw comics. (Originally we had planned on writing The Multiverse Chronicles in comic book form, but that didn’t happen. We kept the idea of doing illustrations, though).

Long story short, Isaac and I were trying to get Photoshop CS6 installed on his new laptop (and the program wasn’t quite cooperating), so I had some downtime while chatting with the Adobe representatives. Since my mind was side-tracked with the idea of how to convert one of our later planned series, Exiles, into a comic book format, I decided to try sketching one of the main characters.

This was the result:

Exiles Character Concept Art

When I looked at her armor, I realized it really didn’t quite… work (I’ve never been particularly good at drawing armor). It didn’t fit what I had pictured. So I started looking up modern day outfits. The real-life Special Forces uniforms didn’t match the in-universe uniforms, so I looked a bit more to SWAT teams for inspiration. Had Isaac help with the visors… (my first attempt at their helmets looked like something from Hunger Games), and then we looked over both uniforms.

This was the result of the uniform sketches:

Exiles Special Forces Uniform Concept Art

Ultimately, our conversation concluded with us discussing that their outfits should match the reason they need that outfit.

For example, the reason our in-universe Special Forces look like a SWAT team is because when they came about, they were dealing with people who had super powers. People who could throw fireballs or used super strength. People who might use swords just because they had a super skill that made them extraordinary with a blade.

These guys needed to be equipped to deal with powers.

For that reason, Isaac and I considered that the original outfit I drew might not be that far-fetched, at least for certain teams. Having a form of armor around their arms and shoulders would be seriously helpful if they got into melee combat… and might protect against burns. They probably wouldn’t want to have a bunch of pouches on the outside of their uniform (do you really want your equipment easily accessible to someone who is telekinetic)? In fact, their outfits might be modular. If they expected to go up against a certain kind of adversary in a certain situation, they could adjust accordingly.

Look at historical “knights in shining armor” and consider that chainmail was more effective at blocking certain types of weapons and strikes than others. Plate armor also came with certain advantages and disadvantages. If you didn’t take this sort of thing into account (or couldn’t), you were at a major disadvantage. There’s an interesting discussion about the effectiveness of chainmail here.

However, those considerations meant that our newer sketches still worked. In areas where super powers are unheard of (the Community), our Special Forces would be more likely to wear the bulkier outfits with all the pockets and gear that would be effective against ordinary assailants. But if they were going up against a group of rebels, they might be more cautious of what they wore.

When you are developing your world, keep the clothing of your characters in mind. What would they wear for practicality? What, if removed from the equation, might create a problem for them?

For example, in our Exiles story, none of the outfits our main characters have fit them properly. They snatch the clothes from a shipment of cargo, wear what they can, and have to make do with what else they can find, at least for a little while. It’s a problem they have to solve.

You can use the attire of a character to enrich the world, and the culture of that world. Why are they wearing what they’re wearing? Is it because they can afford to? Can’t afford not to? What is available to them?

Have you considered the attire your characters well as part of your world building? Can you think of any examples of outfits that fit really well (or not at all) in their story’s world?

Also, if you want to watch an interesting review of real-life body armor versus armor from science fiction (Halo), The Game Theorists did an in-depth video on Youtube. Found that interesting a while back, and Isaac remembered it today when we were reviewing our concept art.

I hope you enjoyed this post.:-)

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Behind the Scenes – Sword of the Quest

A cover for Melange Books. For this cover, we wanted to match the covers of the previous books, Dragon Sword and Sword of Doom. The font and border placement remained the same, as did the leather textured background. The difference was the scene on the front. We tried a couple cover options before we came to this particular setup. (As a note, if you’re the cover artist working on multiple books in a series, and you have all the art forms for each of those books, make sure you don’t accidentally blend ideas from each form.)

Since there’s a lot going on in this cover, the lighting played an important role in balancing the cover. I made sure to have the main character fully lit, and thus in the spotlight. Next up was the woman, but I put her in slight shadow. The reader’s gaze falls first on the man, then her, then finally on the cloaked shadow in the background. The cloaked figure I shadowed the most. Partially because the figure is supposed to be mysterious, but also so the figure doesn’t attract the initial attention from the main character. Then, once all the pieces were in place, I added the specific lighting from the emerald, that way the whole scene fell together.

For the runes on the altar, I drew them in one color on a separate layer and then tinkered with the “bevel and emboss” special effect until they looked like they were part of the stone.

This is the result:

Behind the Scenes - Sword of the Quest - Book Cover

Stock images from The Dollar Photo Club (Stock site sold to Adobe Stock, individual links no longer work): katana //  wolf //  woman’s head / man’s arm / man’s legs / man’s torso
Stock images from Dreamstime: – temple – leather tunic – stone pedestal – emerald – cloaked figure

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Episode 14: The Test – Part Two

The next episode of The Multiverse Chronicles is now online!😀

Trish must successfully complete her flight examination or lose her pterosaur for good…

The Multiverse Chronicles

The Multiverse Chronicles


“The Test – Part Two”

* * *

The Multiverse Chronicles - Pterosaur and a Steam Boat

* * *

After the young pterosaur’s capture, the mangy humans kept her chained to their floating hut. At first, she fought the chain. She snapped at it and flapped her wings, but the chain held fast and the boat was anchored. Though the humans at the hatchery had kept her enclosed in their dome, they never bound her with a dirty, ragged chain, which tore at her skin and mangled her scales.

She was not a happy pterosaur.

Later that evening, the weathered man with straw-colored hair and grit in his wrinkled skin approached her with a pile of hemp rope in his hands. She shrieked at him and flared her wings, but he just smiled, revealing a set of broken teeth. The pterosaur snapped at him—let him see that her teeth were not broken! He…

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