Active Characters

There’s a lot of discussion in the writing world right now about Strong Female Characters. (A few great PubCrawl posts on this subject include this one from Erin and this one from JJ.) These discussions have started me thinking about Strong Characters in general, regardless of gender, age, or abilities. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of strength and wondering what attributes define a strong character.

Please excuse this sweeping generalization, but I would argue that a strong character is one who is Active.

Now by active, I don’t (necessarily) mean the character is running around kicking butt (though that’s always an option.) I mean that the character is acting to create solutions to his or her problems. The story unspools because of the choices made by the character.

Of course, all stories have conflict. Forces push against my characters, and sometimes before they can get their bearings, another force pushes hard against them again. Sometimes I worry that my characters could become rudderless boats tossed around by the story’s conflict. When I fear this could happen (or see that it actually is happening) I make sure my characters are staying active and avoiding two tempting traps:

The trap of becoming a Passive Character.

I’ve written these types of characters before—the ones whose hands are tied, the ones who are biding their time for just the right moment. And they have dragged the story down. I have slogged through what I had hoped would feel like anxious and tense waiting only to discover that waiting is (often) boringly inactive. Even a character whose hands are tied (literally, figuratively, or both,) can be active. He can be planning, watching, preparing his body and mind for the chance to escape. She can have a plan and be putting it into motion, no matter how lame or pointless that plan might be. Maybe the plan is only one step out of a zillion steps to come—maybe it’s nothing more than, “Draw a deep breath of air through the cracks in the walls of my cell,” but it’s a plan. It’s action. There can be waiting, but there can’t be passive waiting.

The trap of becoming an (overly) Reactive Character.

This advice can be confusing, because most stories start with an inciting incident that upsets the status quo of the main character’s life. Whatever action my character takes at that point is, at least to an extent, a reaction to the inciting incident. But that doesn’t mean that my character gets a free pass to fall into a spiraling pattern of reaction. He needs to decide how he’s going to respond to the conflict raining down on him, and his responses should include actions, not just a series of reactions. When conflict pushes against my characters, they have choices. They can push back, or they can fall down. Or they can run away and hide where the pushing can’t reach them anymore. (I mean, that’s only normal, right?) It’s okay if my characters react to the plot with fear or doubt that makes them crawl into a hole for the sake of self-preservation. They just can’t stay in the hole. They can react, but they also have to act. They need to make a difference in the story, and not just let the story make a difference in them.

How do you feel about active, passive, and reactive characters? Do you think it’s important for characters to be active? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

     

7 Responses to Active Characters

  1. Kim Mar 20 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    I really love this post! This is something I used to really struggle with until a couple CPs of mine pointed out a glaring problem in one of my manuscripts: my character wasn’t the one creating the plot, or driving it, but just reacting to it. She wasn’t active, even in her reaction. It took a while, but once I revised that novel to make her active, it was 10x better. The tension and stakes felt realer.

    I think all writers struggle with active/inactive characters from time to time. Great job on explaining why active is something to aim for 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 20 2015 at 12:53 pm #

      Thanks for sharing that story, Kim! I loved that you said, “She wasn’t active, even in her reaction.” I’ve also written books where the MC is on the receiving end of so much conflict she becomes way too reactive. It can be a difficult problem to recognize and also a tough one to fix. Congrats on working it out in revision! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 20 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    A very subtle distinction, active versus reactive. I’ve been suffering with it in my latest MS. The hero is actively trying to achieve a specific goal, while others around him are pulling him into other roles, so his story is part active, part reactive, as he incorporates these other tasks into his own, and finds his own job getting bigger and more difficult. But that makes a more interesting story, I think. If the whole plot was driven just by the one guy it would be pretty one-dimensional, even with the best character as the guy. An ensemble makes for a variety of threads to be woven together, even if it makes the story more difficult to describe.

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 20 2015 at 1:02 pm #

      Hi Marc! I completely agree with you here–there’s definitely a very fine line between acting and reacting. And YES to the added complexity of subplots and ensemble casts! You sound like you know your MC well and will make sure that through all the active/reactive twists and turns, he will never be boring. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  3. Rowenna Mar 20 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    I often think (in terms of fiction and real life!) in terms of agency–does the person recognize and claim their ability and right to act? Often that may look quiet rather than blatant ass-kickery, but it can be just as potent of a plot-mover in my view.

    To be honest, I don’t mind a temporarily passive character, as long as that’s a deliberate strategy by the writer to show the importance of the character attaining agency or the character overcoming weak points to ultimately claim agency in the story. Sometimes very good plots have characters temporarily hobbled, and this makes for great tension (and a really satisfying moment when they “snap out of it!).

    • Julie
      Julie Mar 20 2015 at 3:12 pm #

      Hi Rowenna! I love your comments, and this one is full of such great insight into what makes a character interesting (and sympathetic, too, I think.) It’s sooooo true that quiet characters can be as active as butt-kicking characters, and just kicking butt doesn’t indicate a character is exercising agency (that’s such a precise word here!) You make a great point, as well, about the character who moves from passive to active. Thanks so much for sharing your comments!

  4. Scotie Rainwater Nov 23 2015 at 2:42 am #

    I just don’t think about their gender much when I come up with their character and it usually works for me.

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