Proactive vs. Reactive Characters
By Evan Braun
Back when I was in university, I read a novel that has gone down in my personal canon as “the best book ever.” It was one of those crazy page-turners that you just can’t put down. Some mornings instead of going to my Introduction to Psychology class I would retreat to a quiet corner on the top floor of the university library where no one would find me as I illicitly devoured just a few more chapters. I’d make up for it, I promised myself.
For three or four days, all I did was read that book and sleep. (And yes, I did make up for the missed classes…)
I won’t name the novel, for reasons that I’ll get into shortly, but it was the first book in one of those long multivolume epics that are so good at drawing readers in and fully immersing them in a world.
The story was incredibly compelling to me. There were four or five major characters, all located in different parts of the world, working hard to solve a complicated mystery. I fell in love with these resourceful detectives, sleuthing their way through a twisty-turny plot for the ages.
At the end, all these disparate plotlines converged, with the characters finally meeting each other and joining forces in a grand finale that literally had me sweating. And what a cliffhanger! In the book’s final pages, all the characters found themselves caught adrift in a fast-moving river, being swept away from each other.
Breathless, I had to find out what happened next. I rushed over to the library to find the next volume and excitedly tore into it.
I only made it halfway through the second book before throwing in the towel.
What happened? Why did I lose interest so suddenly?
There is a maxim among writers that’s there to remind us that a story is always more compelling when the characters are proactive as opposed to reactive. This perfectly encapsulates why that first book delighted me so much, and why the second was such a profound disappointment.
In the first book, the characters were driving the story forward at every stage. The characters were making things happen. The plot moved because the characters pushed it. They were proactive.
In the second book, the characters became passengers. Instead of making things happen, things were happening to them and they were just along for the ride. In this case, literally… they were swept up by a river’s current and taken downstream without any control over their speed or direction. They were reactive.
The difference can be subtle, but the reader’s response is often strong.
Readers inherently prefer stories were the characters have maximum agency, where they are the ones spinning the story. Outside events are frequently thrust upon them, of course, as in any story, but those events tend to serve as catalysts for the characters to make incisive decisions.
I think the reason for this is pretty simple. As humans living in an often complicated world, there are times when we feel like we’re only barely keeping our heads above water. The world is acting upon us and we struggle to keep going.
In other words, in real life we often get relegated to playing defence.
In fiction, we don’t necessarily want to see this very realistic part of the human experience echoed in the characters. We want to see them fight hard against the forces working against them. We want them to go on the offence!
For me, this series that I read back in my university days—which I initially loved, but then fell out of love with—serves as an unforgettable object lesson about what can happen when a character falls out of the driver’s seat. I watch for signs of this in the books I edit, as well as in the books I write, to make sure the story doesn’t inadvertently take a wrong turn.
If you feel like your story may have taken a wrong turn, look back over the book to see if your characters are being too reactive. You may need to rethink your story and course-correct, making them more proactive. Active characters are so much easier to root for!
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.