5 Keys to Keeping Your Main Character Active and Not Passive

Mar 26, 2022

One of the most important rules of story is that your main character must drive the action of the story. He cannot be passive. When you have a passive character, it means that things are happening to him as opposed to him making things happen in the story. The problem is, there are times when a main character is rendered powerless. For example, what happens if the bad guys suddenly take your main character by surprise? What if his plans backfire? What if all hell breaks loose? Your main character is supposed to drive the action of the story, but how can he when so many things happen that are beyond that character’s control? What can we do when circumstances put our character in a situation where all he can do is react?


  1.  Replace the meta goal with mini goals.


When you have a character like this, it's essential that you give him appropriate mini goals that he can actively work on, even if he's not the master of his immediate fate. For example, in my dad’s novel, Riley McStephens: Cabin Boy, Riley is a young boy who’s been sold into servitude to pay for his uncle’s debt. Riley objects to this practice, but he’s obviously powerless to change it. So, he vows to become a rich, powerful man who can someday affect that change. When it comes to story structure, there is a META objective, which is the main thing that your character wants and must pursue throughout the entire story, and there are MINI objectives, which are smaller goals that the main character must accomplish along the way, which are necessary to the character being able to achieve the primary goal. Sometimes you have a character who isn’t able to pursue the meta-goal just yet for whatever reason. In the case of Riley, his meta goal cannot immediately be reached, and yet he CAN act now in the form of mini goals, which are dictated by the overarching objective. In other words, the meta-goal guides his choices. He only pursues the things that make sense according to the long-term goal. So maybe Riley learns everything he can about being a cabin boy in order to earn the captain’s favor, or befriends the deckhands, which means gathering allies. Maybe he needs to befriend the cook, so he won’t starve. He may not be able to pursue the meta objective just yet, but everything he does should take him closer to that goal.


  1.  Use the time to acquire essential resources.


When a character is prevented from pursuing their meta-goal temporarily, it’s actually an opportunity for them to acquire much needed skills and assets that they’ll need later on, when the opportunity to pursue the meta-goal resurfaces. In the example of Riley, the mini-goals allow him to increase his knowledge, skills, allies, influence, and power -- assets he must acquire if he hopes to achieve the ultimate goal later. The character should be acquiring anything and everything of value, whatever he can put to good use when the time is right. Mini goals are not wasted, arbitrary or unimportant. They are essential. Like Joseph acquiring skills in the house of Potiphar, Riley's mini goals similarly train him, equip him, harden him, teach him, and prepare him to accomplish the big goal down the road.


  1.  Use obstacles as rites of passage


Inevitably, your main character will encounter obstacles. Otherwise, he would immediately achieve their meta goal and the story would be over. An obstacle is basically anything that stops your character from being able to achieve their objective at that moment. But this doesn’t mean it must stop him cold. It must still move the story forward. Maybe it provides some new clue or idea, but one way to use obstacles is to allow them to test the mettle of your character. When an obstacle comes along, it gives the character a chance to test their skills and wits against whatever it is trying to stop them. They become tests and rites of passage that must be overcome in order for the main character to proceed on his journey, something that prepares him for to climactic conflict. Just as mini goals allow the character to acquire resources, obstacles allow them to acquire crucial life experience. What could be more valuable than that?


  1.  Don’t expect a character to drive the action of the story until after the inciting incident


When the story opens, we're generally going to meet your main character in one of two states: either life is good and they're happy (in which case, their world is about to implode), or life is bad and they’re unhappy (in which case, their world is about to implode). Either way, we meet them in their normal world as they go about their normal business, and then, WHAM, something happens, which launches the character into action.


The inciting incident is usually something that happens to the character out of the blue, which launches the character on their journey. It’s rarely the result of the character’s choice. Just like human beings, our characters typically avoid change. We're all afraid of the unknown. This is why the inciting incident is almost always something that happens to the character rather than something the character causes or seeks. If it feels like your character is passive at the start, don’t worry. However, once the inciting incident occurs, we expect the main character to take over. Your main character should drive the action from that point forward because the inciting incident gives them the meta-goal that they’re going to pursue for the entire rest of the story.


  1.  Don’t lose site of the meta-goal even when it’s temporarily out of reach


When mini goals take over, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. But it’s essential to keep the meta-goal in mind even during temporary disruptions. Otherwise, the story will start to drag and lose focus. The stakes will drop, the tension dry up, and the main character will seem to flounder. An essential step in avoiding this is to make sure the meta-goal is clearly defined from the beginning. The main objective must be clear. Both the audience and your main character need to know what the over-arching goal is, and then your main character must pursue that goal relentlessly. So, even when the character’s efforts to do so are temporarily derailed, the audience will remain invested in the story – as long as the mini-goals seem logical and necessary to them, according to the bigger meta-goal at stake. If the audience feels the character is pursuing meaningless goals that have nothing to do with the story, they will quickly grow frustrated and lose interest. The mini goals must be reasonable according to the bigger objective at stake. Do the steps ring true to the audience? If so, they'll stay emotionally invested in the story.


The overarching principle is that a character drives the action of the story as he pursues a meta goal, but mini goals inevitably emerge along the way, which he must overcome in order to get closer to achieving the primary objective. Responding to these obstacles is not necessarily passive as long as the mini goals are necessary objectives that help him get closer to the real goal. Use these moments to acquire skills, knowledge, resources, allies, whatever they're going to need at the end of the story to make their final stand.


5 Keys to Keeping Your Main Character Active and Not Passive

By Zena Dell Lowe


March Blog Post for The Write Conversation