“Readers tend to like characters who are struggling to achieve a goal. This simple principle can be invaluable in creating sympathetic protagonists.
- Characters working toward a goal are active characters.
- Characters who aren’t working toward a goal are reactive.
Reactive characters are much weaker than active characters, and we tend not to like them. Unfortunately, many writers end up unknowingly creating reactive protagonists
.” - Odyssey Writing Tips
PROACTIVE CHARACTERS »»
- A proactive character is a character who does things. They make decisions, they initiate actions, and they are driven by a goal that often makes them pick the wrong decisions and actions.
- This is important because what characters choose to do is going to create your plot. Why they choose to do it will create your stakes. Together, these factors make you invested in a plot.
- Proactive characters drive plot. They don’t just have strong goals; they actively pursue them. That’s one of the reasons people tend to love villains: they have a clear goal, are often centered around the attainment of that goal, and those goals give interesting insights into their personality and choices.
- This makes proactive characters are easier to build around and work with as the plot progresses. You can make plots around their goals and find ways for those goals to lead to new ones.
- You can get away with having reactive characters in literature sometimes because you’re able to rely on secondary characters to drive the plot and impact your character. (If you roleplay, you don’t get this luxury in RP because everything is centered around character interaction.)
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT »»
Thehappylogophile has an answer:
“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 defense is a good offense”, or even taking the opportunity to return to her pre-story goals.”
What you should take away from this is: when a character isn’t driving the plot, s/he needs to have interesting goals/development outside of the main plot to work towards. This way, your character is always developing over the course of the game and still doing something during downtime instead of sitting idly by.
IS MY CHARACTER REACTIVE »»
“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!”).”
In short, reactive characters don’t make the interesting decisions that give us insights to a person’s personality or develop it.
“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?”
In roleplay, you can generally characters aren’t reactive when their histories/personality read more like a grocery list of characteristics or events. Proactive characters’ applications are driven by and explore their goals and decisions.
WHY DO PEOPLE MAKE REACTIVE CHARACTERS? HOW CAN I AVOID IT? »»
A big reason people make reactive characters is often because of the method they employ creating characters. Many times, writers will take a sort of Frankenstein approach — mixing and mashing character traits and then try to flesh them out. They say my character has x, y, and z trait. S/he has these traits because of a, b, and c.
Don’t do that. That approach generally does not work (unless mixed with others). It wastes your time and doesn’t get at the heart of the issues.
Sure, that can be a good approach to generate ideas. However, unless you find a conflict to base those traits around or use them to further that conflict, no one is going to be invested in your character or have a good idea of how these traits manifest and, most importantly, why.
If you need a formula to follow, try starting with:
- In order of importance, what are the five most important things to your character and why? (make note of conflicting wants and goals)
Tie in information about your character’s deeper motivations. Try to think about where your character’s sense of worth comes from, who they’re trying to impress and why, which of their own (or others’) priorities these might clash with, what characters may believe others want, their goals/values and how they were established, re-occurring problems in your character’s life (jealousy, financial issues, etc.), what sort of person other characters believe yours is, in what ways your character is uniquely selfish, your character’s opinion of him/herself, your character’s ambitions, what your character works to gain/protect, etc. If you’re having trouble, try this resource.
Ex. Being liked. It is important to my character that he is liked. Peter struggled with it as a child because of his romantic involvement with his goldfish, leading other children to think he was strange. He can be somewhat sycophant because of this and tries to secure that he is liked by making himself valuable to others even when it can be damaging to himself and those around him.
- Character Name wants to accomplish these three goals: being more character trait, obtaining status symbol, and protecting his/her ______. S/he wants to accomplish these things because s/he values ___, ___, and ___. S/he is driven to accomplish them because s/he is good/bad trait and good/bad trait and isn’t above doing _____ and ____ to get these things, which makes him/her good/bad trait, good/bad trait, and good/bad trait (or makes other people view him/her that way).
Don’t use really broad, universal traits. If you’re using characteristics like those mentioned here (reserved, trusting, critical, etc.), it might mean you’re being too broad. Saying your character is angry or selfish, for example, fails to give insight into what that says about your character. Everyone is selfish and angry — just to varying degrees and because of various factors. For example, in this episode of Awkward Black Girl (which is an amazing webseries if you haven’t seen it), the main character Jae is sent to anger management. The characters in her anger management session go around saying why they’re there, and Jay (different character) shows how this gives insight to the things they care about. Pete gets angry when time is left on a microwave and not cleared because he cares about time management, Jae has an outburst when someone doesn’t return her stapler because she wants to feel respected.
My favorite trick to generate ideas for a character application is asking myself:
- How is my character broad characteristic (ex. uniquely selfish)? It helps you focus in on a goal, gain insight to what they value, and develop specific ways their characteristics manifest.
The key to creating proactive characters is to have them become involved in solving their own problems/accomplishing their goals, rather than depend on others to solve them. If you want an example, you can go here, where you can read through an author’s personal attempt to make her character more proactive.
WHAT IF I’M ALREADY DOING IT? »»
(The first step is admitting you have a problem.)
The number one reason players get bored in roleplay or feel “stuck” with what they’re writing is because of something editors deem “episodic writing”. Cheryl Wyatt describes it as happening when “one scene happens then another and another and so on but there is really no point to the scenes”.
It happens when you lose sight of your character’s goals and how you want to develop him or her. (The reason people get so invested in relationship lines in roleplay is because it’s a quick and easy way to create goals and because there are pre-established milestones you can develop your character around. This development is often generic but satisfying as players are more invested in the stakes.)
Episodic writing happens for two reasons: 1) your character is reactive or 2) you’ve lost sight of your goals for your character and you’re letting them be reactive when they have a number of things established that would make them proactive. For example, your scenes/characters might read like this. You can see another great example of a problematic storyline here.
Additionally, you might be limiting the scope of how your character can develop and need to branch out more. Or you’re not thinking through ways you can accomplish the goals you’ve established for your character going in.
How do you fix it? Give your character a goal - or better yet, several goals. Let your character need help accomplishing those goals. This helps you develop character relationships, helps you develop your character (especially when you tie in weaknesses, values, etc.), and gives your character something to do. BAM! it really is that simple.
What kind of goal? There are some amazing resources here.
Then, you can have those goals lead to more and more negative consequences. It’s a bit like that book If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, where a little problem can lead to big ones.
One of the best examples I’ve read (but can’t find the link to) is this:
- Jane has become obsessed with growing a certain type of flower to spite her smug neighbor. Despite her best efforts, the flower won’t grow. She tries buying an expensive fertilizer online. She doesn’t realize that buying it has set her back $20 and her checking account is now on a negative. If she doesn’t pay rent, she’ll be kicked out. And on and on and on. Through this, you can help develop your character’s traits. For example, if Jane is too prideful to ask someone for money, this could result in character growth.
Jane is interesting because Jane is proactive. She actively works to grow that mfing flower. Her bad decision/goal leads to other bad decisions/goals.
Tada. You’re now well on your way to making your characters more proactive.
See also: Quick & Dirty Guide To Improving Your Writing