In life and stories alike, there is no quality more attractive than proactivity. Making your characters drive the plot, instead of be driven by the plot, is the single most important storytelling choice you can make as a writer.
A proactive character has direction and takes action; a reactive character, on the other hand, only acts in response to their antagonists’ actions.
This is the root of the “Villain Problem.” Consider this: who was the best character in the original Star Wars trilogy? Was it the farmer-turned-hero who tried to prevent the Empire from killing everyone? Or was it the Empire’s leader, who kick-started the entire trilogy by kidnapping Leia, drove the plot by building and controlling the Death Star, literally created Luke Skywalker, and ultimately saved the galaxy by killing Darth Sidious?
Darth Vader is the most popular character, consistently beating out Luke, Han Solo, and even Yoda in polls. Children dress up as him for Halloween; he has become a cultural icon known even by those heathens who have never seen the films; and he singlehandedly gave rise to an entire prequel trilogy. This is all in spite of the fact that he is an extraordinarily cruel, evil superhuman cyborg who cuts off his own son’s hand and is responsible for the vaporization of entire, heavily-populated planets—in short, an unrelatable, horrifying monster.
Indiana Jones is another noteworthy example: What makes Indiana Jones awesome? It’s not his whip, his hat, or even his personality. The simple secret of his charisma is that he does stuff. The doing of stuff (a technical term for “proactivity”) is his most compelling feature. Take the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana is leading an expedition to steal a small golden statue from a heavily booby-trapped cave, and we watch, rapt, as he faces giant spiders, wide chasms, spears exploding from the walls, and the mangled corpses of those who went before him. He tries and tries again to get to the golden idol, and through courage and ingenuity (and, frankly, raw awesomeness) succeeds.
But then he takes the idol, immediately replacing it with a bag of sand of equal weight to evade any detection system in place—and everything goes wrong. The walls begin to shake, darts fly out of the walls, and a boulder chases him back out of the cavern; when he runs out of the cave, he is surrounded by enemies who force him to hand over the idol.
This shows the key difference between Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker: Indiana is the reason the conflict exists—he is the driving force behind the plot itself—while Luke would have nothing to do if Darth Vader weren’t slaughtering billions with the Death Star.
This is why Indiana is the most loved character from his own franchise, while Vader is the focus of Star Wars.
(In fact, a very strong argument can be made for Vader being the protagonist of Star Wars—he starts the conflict, and resolves it at the end. Luke’s actions are just the lens through which we view Vader’s story.)
Alright, enough movie examples. You’re nearly convinced (I hope). Now let’s look at this in an altogether different context. Who do you find more attractive—the passionate, successful go-getter who is the master of her own destiny, or the unmotivated college student who takes a music-appreciation class because it’s “easy”? When in your own life have you felt most attractive to others—when you were starting your own small business selling organic walnuts to squirrels in Mumbai, or when you were living in your mom’s basement eating Cinabons you ordered online?
Perhaps that is the main takeaway here: if you’re proactive, your love life will prosper like mold growing between an old fisherman’s toes. New tagline—“Brady Dill, keeping your amorous activities at a maximum and raising your tolerance level for strange, out-of-place analogies since 2015!”
Ahem. What was I saying? Ah, yes—self-directed characters are far more attractive than those that only act in response to others’ self-directed actions. Right.
This is one of the several reasons Superman is one of the most boring superheroes: without a villain armed with kryptonite, Superman has nothing to do with himself.
One of the most detrimental choices of new writers is to put the protagonist in a reactionary role: whether watching a murder in an alleyway or standing in a bank being held up by robbers, every protagonist of a first novel seems to be thrown into a disaster by happenstance, instead of causingthe disaster. It’s easy to understand why a writer would start with this: it seems exciting, sudden, captivating. But once it’s on the page, it’s lifeless. When all the tension in a scene is derived from the protagonist frantically thinking “Should I do something? What do I do? Why did I get out of bed this morning?”, it’s never a strong scene.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” And that really summarizes the whole reason the protagonist’s purposeful, deliberate action should drive the plot: she has some desire, some goal, and by the end of the story she’s gained what she wanted; on the other hand, the only thing a reactionary character has achieved by the end of his story is surviving the plot. Superman after defeating Lex Luther…still Superman. Zero character development.
It is possible to start a story with a character reacting, and still have it be compelling: The Hobbit, for example. Bilbo’s only real wish is to do nothing but eat biscuits and drink tea in his hobbit hole, but Gandalf forces him to go on an adventure. However, even though Gandalf initiated the conflict, Bilbo constantly struggles to return to his hobbit hole for the rest of the story—he is the one who moves the plot forward, even if he didn’t directly cause the problem he’s trying to solve.
This illustrates a central reason we prefer proactive characters: a proactive character’s actions reveal her identity, serving as an implicit description of her purpose, her passions, and her values, while a reactive character’s actions reveal someone else’s character. Furthermore, proactivity changes characters, while reactivity holds them still as a sleeping man whose spouse is holding a pillow over his face as he sleeps.
At the end, Bilbo is in the same place and doing the same things with the same people as he was before the book started, but he has gained an appreciation for adventure—the value most removed from his original character. Considering Bilbo’s defining characteristic was once that he loved doing nothing, the storytelling “work” required to move him to a love of doing things is of the highest order and degree.
Think of this in terms of basic physics. For those of you who were contemplating world domination, cheesecake, or video games during high school physics class, let me remind you of an important equation:
Work Done = Force Times Distance
or, in story terms,
Character Change = Conflict Over Time
To accomplish anything, you must maintain effort over a period of time. To get an A in a difficult college course, you have to study an hour every day for the full semester; to have a fulfilling marriage, you have to put energy into having fun with and gradually increasing intimacy with your partner; to write a book, you have to sit in front of your laptop for a few hours every week until it’s done, and to write a good book, you have to repeat that process many times.
The heart of all storytelling, the crux of all conflict and the most profound reason we read and write stories, is character change. Everything else is either mere frills or otherwise designed to amplify, create, or emphasize character development. In terms of a single change (as opposed to a series of changes), the greatest transformation any character can undergo is a full 180º-turnabout—simply because it is the most extreme possible change, and therefore requires the most work and the most powerful underlying conflict. Bilbo’s story is satisfying because he gains a “Turnabout Value” over a short span of story (though Peter Jackson somehow managed to stretch the film over nine hours, the actual book can be read in a single, coffee-and-rage-fueled sitting).
And here’s the kicker (as old people say): change in a character is most effectively brought about by conflict fueled by said character’s own proactivity. Reactive-Skywalker is basically exactly the same before and after the trilogy; proactive-Darth Vader goes from all-the-way evil and the mighty right hand of the Empire to repentant, loving father who gives up his own life to save his son and the rest of the galaxy from the Empire.
(Never mind the fact that Evil-Vader is completely black and Good-Vader is an unreasonably pale white man.)
Now, let me clarify two points:
1. The implication of this is not that your protagonist should be proactive throughout the entire story. Much as a reader stops noticing that a book is in past or present tense about a hundred pages in, a reader will become less fascinated by a constantly proactive character than by a character of fluctuating proactivity.
If your protagonist has varying levels of motivation and action, tension will be heightened in two ways: first, the reader will never become used to (and therefore bored by) her proactivity; second, whenever she becomes less active, tension will rise because her inactivity is a source of conflict—and when she becomes proactive again, the reader will feel relief and will appreciate her proactivity more.
The best example of this is in the middle of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (extremely recommended reading). There comes a section of nearly one hundred pages about a third of the way through the book, during which the protagonist spends three years simply reacting to his environment and trying to survive in the run-down city of Tarbean. This section is beautiful, it is tragic, and it gives marvelous insight into the main character’s psyche—but it is also demoralizing, hopeless, and seemingly endless. Each page crawls by, and the reader is pulled through in part by morbid fascination, but mostly because she wants nothing more than for the protagonist to get back on his feet and take control of his life.
I first read Name of the Wind in LAX airport. When Kvothe finds himself again and escapes Tarbean, I missed my flight.
2. It is true that the most extreme character changes result in complete reversals, such that the character ends up being in some fashion the polar opposite of his former self. It is not true that this means every character arc should follow this formula.
The Hobbit is a children’s book. This doesn’t mean it is worse than other books—in some ways, writing for children is even more difficult than writing for adults—but it does mean that Bilbo’s character arc is highly simplified.
tl;dr? Let me explain—no, there is too much. Let me sum up:
(a) Character development is at the root of all storytelling.
(b) Character development is accomplished by proactive actions, not reactive actions (“reactions,” for the layman).
(c) Because of (a) and (b), proactive characters are far more compelling to the reader than reactive characters. Proactive is to reactive as petroleum jelly is to strawberry jelly. Which would you rather put in your face?
(d) Because you’d rather put strawberry jelly in your face, you should make your PROtagonist PROactive.