Active and Reactionary Characters: How to Find and Fix Your Passive YA Protagonist
Have you heard critics lambast a movie for having a passive protagonist? Have you encountered the complaint that a novel’s main character is someone who events “just happen to”?
Pro tip: Most readers of mainstream fiction prefer active characters. This is especially true in YA speculative fiction, where readers expect an adventure story — and a hero who lives up to it.
Read on to explore the distinction between a reactionary character and a (pro)active one, and explore ways to transform your passenger into the driving force of your novel.
What is a “Reactionary Character”? And is it really a problem?
Ideally, your characters should be out there causing plot! You spent all that time designing their likes and dislikes, their desires, and their talents. Now you should be reaping the benefits. Whether they’re risking their social standing to ask their crush to the prom, or pursuing a vendetta against the god who turned their best friend into a statue, your main character shouldn’t just be the center of your story. They should also be its central engine. They’re why things happen.
A reactionary character does nothing but respond to the events that are happening around them. They become a pawn of fate, or a stooge of the villains. Everything they do is the result of something beyond their control.
When characters aren’t moving the story along, the author has to artificially introduce (or, really, force) events into the plot. It can even end up feeling like your characters are the enemies of your novel, instead of key players in your plot.
Readers are easily frustrated. The pace of the story certainly lagged whenever Potter and friends prioritized homework over investigating the devious doings at Hogwarts. And can you imagine a Katniss who camped all day and waited for other players to approach her on the killing fields? If protagonists did the bare minimum or let themselves get dragged around by the nose, would they still be worth reading about as heroes?
While planning your own budding YA novel, consider what your audience (both teenagers and editors) love about existing bestsellers. Are there a lot of beloved characters whose lives are just strings of good luck and random disaster?
Consider your own preferences as a reader. Do you find those characters easy to empathize with, identify with, and cheer for?
More importantly, are you starting to find all of this worryingly similar to your own work?
So, do you have a reactionary character on your hands?
Does your protagonist always happen to be in the right place at the right time, despite their own decisions? Are they constantly being dragged around by other characters who are pursuing their own agendas? Do they never seem to be facing the consequences of their own mistakes? Does it seem like they have no say in the situations they’re in? (i.e. “The Prophecy demands you go with us, therefore you must do so!”)
Well, they might still be active characters, if they find ways to maintain their agency.
The power that reactionary characters lack is the power of choice. Sneaking out at night after your parents ground you is a choice — but so is staying put, no matter how much your friends begged you to go to that party! And either one can get a character into trouble. Whether their night in makes them the perfect target for an enemy’s attack, or they stumble across the scene of a murder while breaking curfew, the important element of these stories is that the character’s decision drives the plot forward.
Sometimes, agency isn’t enough. Your character can have motives, and make choices, and still stumble from plot point to plot point, a hapless victim of fate. Many choices are emotional impulses, which are just more reactions.
Your character probably needs some solid, well-realized goals. They don’t have to be particularly epic or unique. “I want to avenge my father’s death and save the kingdom!” and “I will prove to my parents that I’m a serious artist!” can seem equally meaningful if your character is dedicated and passionate.
Dedication, passion, and heroism don’t have to define your character all the way through your story, either. Tolkien’s most famous protagonists, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are great examples of characters who struggle to do more than react to events.
Bilbo begins his story reactionary, experiencing bursts of decisive heroism that become more frequent as he grows in experience. Frodo begins his story mature and confident, capable of leading his friends on their expedition out of the Shire. But when the story shifts to the wider world, beyond Frodo’s experience, Tolkien demonstrates that change in scale by reducing a once-competent protagonist to an overwhelmed passenger. This technique incorporates the mechanics of fiction directly into the thematics of the novels: Only by learning to be active characters can Bilbo and Frodo survive their adventures, and become heroes.
How to Transform Your Reactionary Character into an Active Character
Just discussing the problem of reactionary characters in depth has started giving us some clues about how to fix them (Give them goals! Understand their strengths!), but we’re not done yet. No matter what stage of plotting you’re at, there are tactics you can use to put the story back in the hands of your characters.
Know Your Characters Like They’re Your Family
We talked about the importance of knowing who your characters are. Knowing what they like, what they want, and what they fear will allow you to compellingly render their actions within the plot. How do you get that level of familiarity? Using a character worksheet is a good place to start, but you can do more!
The late Ray Bradbury famously said in the afterword of Fahrenheit 451 that he had personally interviewed his characters, and envisioned himself talking to them one-on-one as if they were actors on a set. As a result of this determined intimacy, the characters in Fahrenheit 451 are famous for being a chilling study on character motivation.
If you’re not comfortable sitting in a room talking to yourself, an alternative tactic is to ask a friend for help. In this exercise, you put yourself in your character’s shoes and speak with their voice while your partner asks you both prepared questions you need the answers to and spontaneous ones that can teach you things about your character you never imagined. Try it as a party game! The multiple perspectives can produce rich results and a surprising depth of characterization.
(There’s plenty of advice on building strong characters available through Crit & Pen Academy’s mini-course, Cracking the Cast. Enroll today and check it out!)
Deprive Your Characters of Help
One great trick is to remove the support your characters rely on, maybe even isolating them from all their allies. This forces them to make their own decisions. Setting a character adrift with no assigned missions and no one to offer guidance requires them to use their own initiative and creativity, even if their only goal is to get back to the support system you’ve taken away.
Give Another Character a Turn to Act
Your central protagonist doesn’t have to be the only character driving the action. If there are other characters who should be moving the story, it might be time to consider writing passages from their point of view! That way, even the villainous schemes in your world don’t have to seem like forces of fate. They become the active machinations of a character whose decisions your reader watches with apprehension, just like the hero.
This technique is useful because it can be applied fairly late in the plotting process. No major alterations are required. You already knew what the events of these sections were, you just originally wrote them from another perspective.
Make Them Troublemakers with a Purpose
Ideally, your character’s actions also catalyze the story’s main conflict. Your character’s actions or words can thicken the plot by offending other characters, causing misunderstandings, giving away secrets, or furthering division between friends or enemies.
This can result in a snowball effect where every incident your character starts causes three more they have to navigate, with plenty of chances for them to sow more chaos. This structure is exemplified in Margaret Peterson’s Shadow Children series, where the characters’ every act of defiance and effort to sabotage the “Population Police” creates a new scene that intensifies the stakes of the disaster. When using this technique, it’s important to remember that while chaos can be the source of satisfying plots, it can also completely undermine them.
One last word of advice:
Be wary of your character’s actions turning your novel into a hectic, confusing jumble of scenes. Remember that each action, no matter how spontaneous, should have a meaning, and lead to significant change, discoveries, or complications for other cast members, or your broader plot.