Characters who make decisions that push the story forward are more engaging, more interesting, and more like-able than characters who are passive. This is a mistake I continue to make over and over. It doesn’t seem to matter how well I know this lesson, it still creeps into my writing.
Bella Swan Is Passive
Bella Swan from Twlight is a passive character in at least the first 1.5 books of that series. She decides to go to Forks to live with her father, and then the rest of the book is stuff happening to her. She doesn’t make very many decisions that influence the outcome of the next plot event. She’s nearly hit by a truck. Edward decides to date her even though his family doesn’t want him to. He decides to take her home to meet this family and play baseball. He’s the one who recognizes the danger she’s in and decides they have to leave. Over and over this happens where someone else decides what Bella will do, where she will go, etc. She makes proactive decisions here and there, but mostly she just lets life pummel her and does her best to survive.
Buffy of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a proactive character. Buffy decides to fall in love with a vampire. Buffy decides to sneak out of class, to take on a vamp by herself, to lie to her mom, etc. Buffy gets herself into and out of trouble in every episode–all while wearing cute shoes.
Diagnosing A Passive Character
When you’re trying to diagnose whether a character is passive or not, for each new plot event ask yourself what that character did to get themselves in that predicament. The inciting incident, the problem that kicks off the story, happens to the character. They’re sucker punched and left for dead on the side of the story road – what are they going to do about it? They have to DO something to get the story started. I’m going to outline a story of mine that’s been sitting in a drawer for years that will probably never see the light of day.
- Laurel loses her job, can’t pay her rent, and can’t find another job. (This is a story problem that’s happened TO Laurel. Almost every inciting incident forces the character into a passive role.)
- Laurel reconciles with her estranged husband. (This is OK as long as Laurel is the one initiating the reconciliation. If the ex happens to come to her and offers her a place to live because he’s heard she lost her job – that makes her passive.)
- Laurel finds out she’s pregnant. (This is OK as long as Laurel’s made the decision that put her in this predicament. If she’s pregnant because she got drunk and her ex took advantage of her, she’s passive.)
- Laurel gets offered her dream job. (This is OK as long as Laurel has sought out this opportunity–she’s reached out to a friend, answered a job ad, secretively met with an old flame she knows has a connection – whatever. If this job opportunity falls out of the sky, Laurel is once again passive because she’s not directing the action of the story.)
- Laurel chooses to keep baby and stay with ex, but has to give up her dream job. (She actively makes a decision, but the decision has to cost her something and it has to be directly related to the initial story problem. In this case, the job loss forced her to lose her independence so choosing to stay with her ex and give up her dream job — that would restore her independence, directly answers her initial story problem.)
This is pretty simplified. Credit to Les Edgerton for the process. (He runs a great 12 week critique class a few times a year that really hones in on these types of plot problems if you’re struggling.) Do you see how each story plot point could make a character passive/reactive or proactive? It’s all determined by whether the character put themselves in that predicament or it just happened to them. Be really objective about this. It’s crucial.
Why Do We Create Passive Characters?
When I’m stuck and can’t move ahead with a story, when I just can’t figure out where to go next or where to take my characters, passive characters creep in. Mostly, this is because I begin engineering the story instead of letting the characters lead the way. When I’m not sure where the character should go, what they should do, how they should react, I create plot events to keep the story moving and often that makes my character passive.
How well do you know your character? Like, really know them? Try interviewing them. When I get stuck, I drill down into the why. Why did you say that or act that way? What are you afraid will happen — what’s the worst case scenario here for you? What’s your goal for this scene/chapter? What would you rather say/do and why? Often, by the time I drill down through the why’s of a scene, it becomes clear that the character is reacting to events rather than causing them.
It’s A Setback, Not A Failure
Remember, learning that you have a passive character isn’t the end of the world. Depending on when your character became passive, it might require a serious rewrite but your story will be stronger, your character will be more engaging, and you’ll hook readers and keep them reading. Those are all wins. How you get there is just details. Keep going.
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