A reactive protagonist is a common reason for rejected manuscripts, and a common problem in premise novels—the novel explores a concept and shows “things happening,” yet there’s no real person with a problem. When a protagonist is reactive, they’re just someone who has “things happen” to them. The protagonist isn’t driving the plot, but only reacting to things that almost randomly happen.
Reactive protagonists are troublesome because they’re often a red flag that the story problem or core conflict isn’t personal enough to the character. If the problem mattered, then the protagonist would have reasons to act to resolve that problem. They can also indicate that a story that lacks narrative drive and feels aimless, or worse—pointless.
(Here’s more on narrative drive)
A reactive protagonist is different, however, from a protagonist who reacts to things. Our characters will react to events all through the novel, and they’ll make decisions and shift plans as things change or the unexpected happens. That’s normal and something to strive for.
The problem comes when our protagonists don’t act or do anything unless an outside force acts upon them first. They don’t want anything, they’re not trying to avoid anything, they’re not trying to do anything. If the plot problem of the novel happened to another person, nothing about the story would change.
A quick word about the point of view character vs. the protagonist: In most cases these days, the point of view character is the protagonist, but it’s possible to have stories where the protagonist is a non-point of view character (The Great Gatsby and Sherlock Holmes are the most famous examples). Someone else is driving the story and making things happen, but another character is observing and watching the plot unfold.
(Here’s more on knowing who your narrator is)
How Can You Tell if You Have a Reactive Protagonist?
If you’re worried you have a reactive protagonist, look at your story and ask:
What problem is the protagonist trying to solve? Stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. If there’s no attempt to solve a problem, there’s no story. The protagonist should have a goal, be trying to fix a problem, get something she wants, etc. If the protagonist has no problem, that’s an indication there’s nothing (or no one) driving the story.
What plans does the protagonist make? A proactive protagonist makes plans and acts according to those plans. If your protagonist never plans anything, and just goes with the flow as events unfold around her, you probably have a reactive protagonist.
How much of the plot is created by the choices the protagonist makes? Choices move the plot and cause the novel to happen. If your protagonist never faces a tough choice (or worse—never faces any choices, even easy ones) odds are she’s just reacting and not acting. Pay special attention if your protagonist feels like she is making choices, but they’re all obvious and easy and no one would ever choose the opposite option. If there really isn’t a choice, it’s not a choice at all.
(Here’s more on letting characters make tough decisions)
How often is the protagonist “swept up by events?” It’s not uncommon for events to sweep up the protagonist in the beginning of a story, pulling the unwary character onto the plot path of the novel. But if your protagonist is pulled from event to event and never plans or chooses to do what the plot forces her to do, you most likely have a reactive protagonist on your hands.
Would things unfold the same if the protagonist wasn’t there? A proactive protagonist makes things happen by the choices she makes. The plot is shaped by who she is and what she does. If you could make another character the protagonist and the plot still unfolds pretty much exactly the same, odds are your protagonist isn’t driving the story at all.
How You Can Get Your Protagonist Acting Again
If you find your protagonist is reactive, never fear. There are things you can do to get them acting and even improve your story overall.
Give her a goal in every scene: Characters who want things will act to get them. Goals give your protagonist things to do and strive for.
Give him reasons to act: Just having something to do isn’t always enough, it should be personal and matter to the protagonist. Think about your stakes and what consequences will befall the protagonist if he doesn’t achieve his goal? Why is he facing all these problems or dangers in the story?
Let her make choices on how to proceed: The protagonist drives the plot through the choices she makes. She can be wrong, she can make bad decisions, she can even fail, as long as her choices and actions make the plot happen. The tougher the choices, the more interesting the story usually is.
Make him vital to what’s happening: The protagonist is key to the plot. If you took him out, the entire story would fall apart. He’s the reason things happen, and he’s the critical element to resolving the problem.
(Here’s more on what every story needs)
The protagonist is the heart of a story, and usually the reason that story is being told in the first place—to show an interesting person trying to solve and interesting problem. If the protagonist isn’t trying to solve a problem they’re not doing their job. Put them back in the driver’s seat and make them responsible for their own lives.
Have you ever written a reactive protagonist? Can you think of any stories or movies that have had reactive protagonist?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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