Director’s Corner: Active Versus Reactive Characters

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.


Active Versus Reactive Characters

One problem many developing writers have is that readers don’t like their main characters and don’t care what happens to them. If you can get readers to become emotionally invested in your protagonist, then they’ll follow you almost anywhere.

Readers tend to like characters who are struggling to achieve a goal. This simple principle can be invaluable in creating sympathetic protagonists. Characters working toward a goal are active characters. Characters who aren’t working toward a goal are reactive. Reactive characters are much weaker than active characters, and we tend not to like them. Unfortunately, many writers end up unknowingly creating reactive protagonists.

Here’s a scene with one active character and one reactive character:

      Joe: “What do you want to do tonight?”

 

      Jane: “I don’t know.”

 

      Joe: “Let’s go see

Lord of the Rings

      .”

 

      Jane: “I already saw it.”

 

      Joe: “Well, let’s go bowling then.”

 

      Jane: “I hate bowling.”

 

      Joe: “We could rent a video and stay home.”

 

    Jane: “We did that last night.”

Joe is the active character, Jane reactive. Joe is working toward a goal (finding something pleasant for them to do together). Jane is just reacting to what Joe says, and is seemingly not interested in achieving that goal or any other. We relate to Joe, because at least he’s trying. We dislike Jane, because she’s not trying.

Some people certainly are reactive, and it’s fine to have reactive characters in your story. Just be aware that’s what you’re doing, and don’t expect your readers to like those characters.

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