Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writer's Corner: Active vs. Reactive Characters

Here's where my head's been at, thinking about story and characters. Every remarkable story is defined by a remarkable character. In recent literature, we've got Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen as prime examples. There are more, obviously. But those are the ones that spurred this thought process. 

If you look at the characters who are the most involving, you’ll generally find a common thread – they don’t let life happen to them. Their lives are defined by their actions and choices. Sure, mistakes are made. There are regrets. But they’re interesting, and you want to know what they’ll do next.

The easy story to write is the one where life happens to your character. You bring problems to his door, and he gets to respond. Rather than plan his actions, you let your character relax, sip tea, and wait for the phone to ring. The more often they wait, the more passive they become. You can hide it for a while with twists and turns, but after a while readers subconsciously become disinterested, even frustrated with the character.

Take a look at the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy. The first book is the strongest; the chemistry between Mikel and Lisbeth is involving, and not just because Lisbeth is one of the most charismatic and unique characters to come out of popular literature in the last 50 years.

She’s that interesting, but what does the author do with her in the last book? Lock her in jail and expect the bland character to get her out. As a result, the last book is the weakest.

(I've got a whole other tirade about how the author wrote a glorified version of himself into the book. Sure, Ian Fleming did the same, but at least James bond is interesting.)

Similarly, take a look at Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. The books work best when you really don’t know what she’s going to do next. But in the third book she’s essentially rendered powerless, stuck as a figurehead or in hiding underground. Just like Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy because the most dynamic character is locked away.

The good news that there's more than one way to make a character dynamic. A dynamic character doesn’t have  to be swashbuckling or computer-hacking or government-overthrowing to be interesting. Think of Elizabeth Bennett. Obviously, as a single woman with a tiny dowry during the 19th century, she couldn't control her destiny much. But what could she do?

Snark. And the book is better for it.

 So take a look at your story. Is your character reactive or passive? Ask yourself - 

1.) What is the last bad decision your character made?

2.) When did your character last surprise you?

3.) Which characters do you feel are doing the lion’s share of moving the plot?

4.) Who does your character take advice from?

5.)  What kinds of verbs is do you surround your character with?

If your character is making so few decisions that he hasn’t made any bad ones, seldom surprises you, relies on other people to move the plot, talks about action rather than acting, and seems to be hanging around a lot of passive verbs, he is likely a reactive character.

If, on the other hand, he is getting himself into scrapes, takes you by surprise, drives the plot neatly, knows his mind, and spends time with active verbs, you’ve got an strong active character on your hands.

Tips to save reactive characters:

1.) Plan ahead. Your character is more likely to drive the plot if you’re first aware of the plot’s direction. It’s easier to move the pieces across the board when you know where you’re going and how you want to get there.

2.) Increase the tension. Put your character in a tight spot, physically, emotionally, and make her fight her own way out.

3.) Less thinking, more doing. I don’t care if your character is particularly cerebral. Friends who hem and haw for weeks or years before a decision are boring and trying. Characters are the same way. A reader will respect decisiveness, even if that decision turns out to be foolish.

4.) Get to know your character better. A lot of times, reactive characters happen by default when you simply don’t know your characters as well as you should. What are the sorts of things that will drive him to action?

5.) Surround your character with active verbs. Even if he’s going through a pensive stage, he’ll read more dynamically on the page.

My next character tip is to give him (or her) a superpower, and not, I'm not necessarily talking about flight. Stay tuned for the next blog...