Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!
Do You Have a Reactive or Passive Protagonist?
Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, high stakes can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.
You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where the fit in.
Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.
Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?
You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.
Writing a Proactive Protagonist
No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But even better if there’s at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.
Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need.
Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.
The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.
Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.
Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.
Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.
Secondary characters and subplots help in this regard. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?
Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. This is a recipe for passive protagonist disaster.
Big Choices and Small Moments
Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active reactions. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.
Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist act and pursue, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.
Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?
Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.