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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