WRITING PASSIVE CHARACTERS: THE KISS OF DEATH IN STORYSep 30, 2023
One of the worst things you can do in story is write a passive character, but how do you keep your main character active and not passive?
As a writer, I have learned that when it comes to storytelling, there are rules and there are tools. A rule is a universal story principle that applies at all times and should be adhered to in your story.
Tools, on the other hand, are the tricks or techniques that you can use to bring your story to life. Your job as the writer is to discern how and when to apply which tool in a particular situation.
For example, a fundamental principle of all good storytelling is that your main character must drive the action of the story. Recently, however, I received a message from a fellow writer who was concerned that their main character might be too passive. A lot of things were happening TO that character, which forced him to be reactive. The writer wasn't sure if this constituted a passive character or not.
It's a legitimate question, and it's essential to look at the interplay between the main character and the plot to fully understand the solution.
Let's start at the beginning of the story.
When a story begins, we meet the main character in their normal world going about their normal business. We typically find them in one of two states: either life is good and everything seems perfect (in which case their world is about to implode), or we find them in some state of lacking, where something is missing (in which case they want something but are too afraid to go out and get it).
Whatever their state, suddenly, something happens that launches the character into action.
This is the inciting incident or the call to action, and it's usually something that happens TO your character out of the blue, which forces them to adopt a new goal and thereby launches them on their journey.
In other words, while the inciting incident is something that happens TO the main character (i.e. it's hardly ever the character's choice), as soon as it happens, we expect the main character to take over from there. We expect them to drive the action of the story from that point on. Just like in real life, our characters typically avoid change, which is why the inciting incident is almost always something that happens TO them. But once it does, we expect them to be the one who makes things happen as the rest of the story unfolds.
This is because the inciting incident gives your character a new, clear goal. It gives your character the objective that they are going to pursue relentlessly for the entire rest of the story.
If it's a crime thriller, the goal is probably going to be to catch the bad guy. If it's a rom-com, the goal is probably going to be to win over the guy or the girl. Some genres make the goal easier to ascertain, but you still must make it personal for your character, and you still have to come up with the step-by-step plan to achieve it. This is what makes your main character active.
Furthermore, the goal must be clear in your character's mind. They have to know what they want, even if what they want is not what they really need. The plot unfolds as the main character makes choice after choice in pursuit of their goal. They must pursue their objective relentlessly, which directly impacts the story.
Let me say that again so you don’t miss it: Whatever happens in the story plot-wise depends entirely upon the logical next steps your main character takes to relentlessly pursue their goal.
This is why you can’t have a passive character. Where the character is passive or only reactive, there is no story.
It's important for writers to understand the interplay between your characters' choices and the plot. Simply put, your main character must drive the action of the story; they cannot be passive.
If your character is only reactive, they're not driving the story forward, and the audience loses interest in them. If they're just reacting to everything that's happening around them, the audience will cease to emotionally invest in their journey.
The interplay between your main character and the plot is essential to ensuring that your story is engaging and that your readers or viewers can empathize with your main character. By having a clear goal and pursuing it relentlessly, your main character will drive the action of the story and take control of their own destiny.
If you need help to ensure that your main character is driving the action of your story, send me an email at [email protected] for a free consultation on my coaching services. While I only take on a few clients at a time, if I can't help you, I’ll happily refer you to someone who can. The main thing is for you to keep moving forward, just like your main character must do.
I look forward to hearing from you!