Avoid Writing Passive Characters

Active, decision-making characters will always be more interesting than passive characters. There’s a book that I recommend over and over called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder that touches on writing character decisions. (There’s also Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.) One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on show, don’t tell) are choices and actions.

writing character decisions, passive characters
No crash test dummies here! These guys are ready for ACTION!

Avoiding Passive Characters with Show, Don’t Tell

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary characters or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? When you’re actively writing character decisions like this, you teach readers about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For Example…

Your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

Avoid the Crash Test Dummy

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are plots in which there are passive characters who can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or get dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your hands are tied in terms of writing character decisions, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the passive characters don’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel. You need to focus on creating an active protagonist instead.

Always Choose Active Over Passive Characters

Think about whether you’ve written active or passive characters. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating the power that writing character decisions has in crafting character and plot.

Are you struggling with writing character decisions? Is your work full of passive characters? Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll help you inject choice and action into your story.

9 Replies to “Avoid Writing Passive Characters”

  1. Christina C. says:

    Not only is it important to have the character actively create problems or solutions in the plot through their decisions, but their choices also create ripple effects for the people the main character cares about or hates. Kind of brings all the players in the plot together by centering them around the main character.

    Excellent post!! 🙂

  2. Mary, you mind-reader. This is my novel. Which begs the question: once identified, what are the strategies for fixing this?

    I’ve started an If/Then outline. “If this happens, then it leads to that.” The goal is to have lots of Ifs driven by the protagonist. I’m also looking to go through my timeline and flag every time she makes a decision, and possibly how consequential it is. I’m already seeing a shift in direction/emphasis.

    Any other methods one should be looking at?

  3. This is also one of my favourite craft books. His story structure is a great way to see if there are holes in your story that need filling.

  4. Wow… there are some very powerful ideas here about how stories work. Need to check out Save the Cat; I can see how a screenwriting book would be helpful in creating kids’ fiction since screenwriting also must have a visual focus. Thanks!

  5. Hi,

    Good advice. I was checking out your blog for a school project and I just wrote my first kid lit story. My protagonist is very decisive; Abraham Lincoln as a kid.

  6. Nice article. I agree that it’s never too early in the story to build sympathy and compassion for the main character. In my new novel, “Broccoli Chronicles” I start setting this scene in chapter one through her actions, emotions, and interactions with others. I learned early on to “show, not tell.” I hope others figure this our right away.

  7. Nice article. I agree that it’s never too early in the story to build sympathy and compassion for the main character. In my new novel, “Broccoli Chronicles” I start setting this scene in chapter one through her actions, emotions, and interactions with others. I learned early on to “show, not tell.” I hope others figure this out right away.

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