Characters People Loathe, Part Two: Passive and Reactive

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Let’s continue our look at characters people tend to hate, shall we? Last time, I wrote about Mary Sues, which is a type that is pretty easy to spot. This next one is a bit more nebulous, and can be harder to pin down, because they can be likable people! In the hands of another author, they would likely be compelling and genuinely interesting. Unfortunately, there’s something about them that just seems… off.

Maybe it’s because they don’t actually do anything on their own. 

People like characters who take matters into their own hands. We like Frodo because, even though he’s just a little dude with no special talents, he makes a choice. He stands up and shoulders a burden that nobody else can. And then he proceeds to leave the relative safety of his friends and guardians, to strike out (almost) alone, because it needs to be done by someone. When he gets his happy ending, there’s no doubt in any rational person’s mind that Frodo earned it.

We respond positively to characters who have goals and motives and who do their damnedest to achieve them. Take one of my favorite movies, The King’s Speech, as an example. There’s no action in it. It’s just about King George VI trying to overcome his stutter. And I was rooting for him, because he spent most of his time onscreen pursuing that goal. It helps to be played by Colin Firth, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Characters, especially lead protagonists, need to take control of the story.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Too often, we have stories with Reactive Characters.

Reactive characters spend the majority of their time responding to plot elements that happen near them. The antagonist does X, so the protagonist does Y, so the antagonist does Z, and so on. Anyone who plays chess will tell you that reactive play is nothing but a losing strategy. We understand at a basic level that simply responding to events as they occur is no way for anyone to live or be successful.

Let’s look at a ludicrously popular reactive character: Katniss Everdeen.

I’ll likely take some heat for this, because The Hunger Games is so dang popular. But look at the facts. Katniss spends the majority of the first book blindly reacting to events as they happen. From the moment that Prim is chosen, all of Katniss’s actions are responses. She volunteers, she lets herself be dressed up like a doll, she goes along with Peeta’s romantic inclinations– even most of her kills are the result of reactions or outside influences.

It isn’t until near the end of the book that she finally picks up the reins of the story, and it’s the only thing that saved it from the scrap heap, in my opinion. Once Katniss gets proactive and begins hunting the other tributes does she show any of her own agency. Then, of course, the next two books completely undo this, and she spends the entirety of both having things simply done to her while she watches and reacts. Hell, even the end of the last book removes the choice of her romantic partner for her. She never chooses who she’ll be with; he’s simply the only one left. And then has kids because he wants them.

I liked The Hunger Games, but not Katniss. It took me a little while to figure out why I was annoyed by her so much, and eventually I realized it was because of this. I was unconsciously wishing that she would decide to start doing things instead of just continuing to exist the entire time.

It’s justified pretty well in this case, because one of the underlying themes of the series is the lack of control and self-actualization of the Districts. The whole point of the Games was to take that control away from families and tributes and demonstrate the Capital’s dominance. That said, Katniss would have been a far more satisfying character if she had taken charge of her own destiny much earlier, and hadn’t given up the reins in the second and third books.

Don’t take this to mean that all reactions are bad, because they aren’t. In fact, there almost always needs to be an impetus for the plot to be kicked off. A Call to Action is appropriate and expected. In the above example, it would have been Katniss volunteering. To use another, take Liam Neeson in Taken. Once his daughter is kidnapped, he threatens the guy on the phone. That is his Call to Action. The entirety of the rest of the movie is spent watching Neeson take control of the situation as best he can, which really involves him punching ethnically diverse bad guys.

It is what takes place after that impetus that makes the character active or reactive. Liam Neeson? Active. Active as hell. Katniss Everdeen? Reactive. Like baking soda and vinegar.

Let’s not forget the other type, usually hand-in-hand with reactive characters: passive characters. These are different, in that they do not advance the plot of their own volition. Reactive characters can do so, if their responses are clever enough, but passive characters tend to blithely stymie the plot with their inaction.

Take, for example Good Will Hunting. Undoubtedly a great movie, with awesome performances and solid writing. Do you know what it’s about? It’s not about a genius upstart who laughs in the face of society’s contemptible expectations. It’s about proactive characters pushing a passive one to do something. Will is the kind of friend you would punch in the face given the chance. Because he’s interesting, he’s unique, he’s talented, and yet the plot just happens all around him.

The telltale sign of a passive character is that the plot happens to the character. They’re a victim of circumstance, usually. Like Harry Potter in the first book. Things are happening to him, completely beyond his control; he can’t stop from making weird things happen, he can’t keep his Aunt and Uncle from abusing him, he can’t read the letters from nowhere. What keeps him from being a passive character is that, once he gets to Hogwarts, he stops being a victim of circumstance and takes control of his own life.

Some stories forget to add that part, and just have their main character continue to be pelted with events beyond their control. It can be tempting, especially if you’re writing a jerk for a lead protagonist and want to teach him a lesson, but it’s usually a mistake.

By and large, your plots should be driven by the characters within them, particularly the lead protagonist. It’s cool to have some side characters be crazily reactive or annoyingly passive, especially when it’s played for laughs, but your lead really needs to be proactive at least sometimes. This doesn’t mean that your main character must have a grand plan throughout the story. It means that he or she needs to eventually grab hold of their own fate and do something.

As I mentioned before, it’s okay for your character to be passive or reactive at times. No character is going to be constantly doing things; there needs to be downtime, of course. Usually, your character will be most passive near the beginning, before the plot kicks off and they’re generally satisfied with their normal life, and near the end, during the denouement, and things return to normal (or the new normal). The trick is to keep it limited to the expository sections, and to make sure it doesn’t bleed too much into the main plot.

A good litmus test to see if your character is active or not is to make a list of the major plot points of your story. Take a hard look at each one, and figure out what sets off each of them. Which ones were put in motion directly by your character’s choices or actions? Which ones were the result of external forces outside your character’s control? How many fell into each category? If your ratio isn’t somewhere in the neighborhood of 2:1 or more, you have some work to do.

All of this said, it isn’t always the worst thing in the world to have a passive or reactive character. Sometimes, it can work really well. The Big Lebowski comes to mind. The positives are far outweighed by the negatives, however, and those cases in which it works are the exceptions, not the rule.

Every writer has done this at some point; not every character you write is going to be a winner. You have to be really honest with yourself and your writing when it comes to this, because a passive character can kill a story before it gets started. Be brutal, take a hard look at your work after you’ve done a rough draft, and nix as much of the passivity as you can, or you might find yourself with something worse than you had thought.


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