Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Proactive Characters
Writers tend to make a lot of noise (and text) about writing proactive characters. Without them, they say, stories tend to become dull and repetitive, and readers lose interest in the material and characters. And that brings up some important questions for the aspiring writer: What is a proactive character, anyway? How does one make sure a character isn't another damsel in distress? And what is non-proactive character and what does it look like?
To begin answering these questions, I'm going to take a look at a few different pieces of the puzzle. We'll start with proactive actions, which are the cornerstone of a good character, and then look at how to apply them once you're actually writing a story, with plenty of examples to help you understand what is, and isn't, considered proactive.
Table of Contents
- What is a "proactive action?"
- If an action isn't proactive, what is it called?
- When should my characters take a proactive action?
- In summary!
What is a "proactive action?"
In order to be considered proactive, an action to fit two criteria:
1. The action must presents risk to the character/characters taking them.
2. The character/characters must deliberately, consciously, and personally choose it.
Let's take a closer look at these items, starting with the first: The action must present a risk. Risks do not necessarily need to be real or tangible, as long as they the characters perceive it is there, but the characters must be aware that by persuing these actions there will be trouble for them. It need not be severe trouble - even a minor inconvenience, if unpleasant enough, can serve as an effective deterrent.
Here are a few examples of risks that characters might face:
- Missing out on a piece of delicious cake.
- Experiencing anxiety.
- Suffering embarrassment.
- Losing the respect of friends or peers.
- Falling into a flaming pit of painful death.
Simply facing risk is not enough, however - plenty of passive and reactive choices provide risk as well. In order for any given action to count, they must personally choose the action for themselves. This means that they must decide against at least one separate option that is equally available and acceptable, or at least appears to be.
For example, a character deciding to enter the military may be considered proactive if the character has other (actual or potential) life plans that could be explored, the character's society (or social circle) is not overwhelmingly encouraging of the decision, and the character is not being motivated by a personal goal, such as the pursuit of revenge or romance. If, however, the character is exposed to pro-war propaganda on the regular and has no outstanding reasons to avoid joining (health issues, discouragement from a respected figure, strong fear of service, etc.), this would not be a proactive action.
If an action isn't proactive, what is it called?
Non-proactive actions fall into the category of either "passive" or "reactive". Unlike proactive actions, characters take these actions not because they have made a conscious choice to, but because either their situations made the action necessary, or simply because they're the most reasonable-seeming course of action. For example, going to work on a normal day could be considered a passive action. Staying home on a workday because you're in bed with the flu, on the other hand, would typically be considered reactive.
It's important to note that passive and reactions are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing. In fact, there will be plenty of moments in the story where a proactive action would not only be pointless, but completely inappropriate for the situation at hand. As long as your main characters are aware of the world around them and have a sense of responsibility, there will be plenty of moments when they change - or continue - their courses of action based more on external influences than their own conscious decisionmaking.
When should my characters take a proactive action?
There's no exact science for figuring out the right number of proactive actions for any given character. Very often, it's going to depend on several different factors, including the length of the story, the number (and identity) of characters involved in a given scene, and even the genre. Generally, when deciding whether to take a proactive, passive, or reactive action, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- How long has it been since a character did something proactive?
- Will this action have a meaningful impact on the plot and/or characters?
- If a character takes this action now, is it going to disrupt the story that's already happening?
- Is there another character who should be taking this action instead?
- Proactive actions are those that A: present some amount of risk (or perceived risk), and B: are personally chosen over an (at least apparently) equally available and acceptable alternative.
- Actions that do nothing to go against the grain of one's current lifestyle and existence are passive. Actions that are the most obvious solutions to take against a particular problem are reactive. However, not all passive or reactive actions are bad - there will be many times when they're perfectly justified.
- There's no exact science to figuring out when any given character should be proactive, but a few things to consider are whether it's been awhile since anyone's done anything proactive, whether it'll have meaningful impact on the plot or characters, whether or not it's likely to interrupt a current plot, and for which character a proactive action would the most sense.
Let's take a look at what our answers to these questions might be, and how we should proceed from there.
How long has it been since a character did something proactive? The length of time that's passed can help you decide whether it's time for a new proactive decision or not. In a typical story, a proactive decision should happen at least once per story arc - in fact, they're an excellent way to kick off a new arc when the old one is winding down. In an RP, the pacing won't be quite as firm, but a good time to take a proactive action is when the story seems to be lagging (or the characters are stuck) and one of your characters has the opportunity to do something about it.
Will this action have a meaningful impact on the plot and/or characters? Make sure that any action you're considering will (or, in the case of an RP, has a chance to) contribute to the story in some way, whether it's changing the way a character looks at life, leading everyone to a discovery that helps them overcome their latest adversary, or even screwing everything up and forcing the characters to find a way and fix it.
If a character takes this action now, is it going to disrupt the plot that's already happening? Sometimes, it just isn't the right time for someone to do something proactive. For example, if the characters are already in the middle of a quest to recover the Holy Sword of Villain Slaying, it probably isn't the best time for someone to decide that they need to figure out what their Ancestral Amulet of Destiny is for, unless they can look it up on a Mystical Tablet of Internet Access without disturbing the ongoing quest.
Is there another character who should be acting instead? The main character (or your RP character) isn't the only one who should be proactive. Depending on what's happening in the story, and the individual traits of the cast members, it might be more appropriate for a supporting character (or other player) to take the lead. For instance, in a scenario where your characters are trapped inside a high-security building full of gun-toting guards, it might be tempting to have your brave leader character step up and lead a valiant charge, but it would probably make more sense for a more cautious character to call for help or try to find a way to sneak out of the situation.
By answering all these questions, you'll be able to determine for yourself whether you've found the right moment for someone to get proactive.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in:
Grail Character Syndrome: How To Be The Center Of Attention And Yet Be A Total Bore
Reasons Your Character Might Be Boring
The Case For Killing The "Blank Slate" Character
Basic Tips For Writing Better Ensemble Casts
On Writing Likeable & Useful Sidekicks