What Did You Learn?

June 23, 2011

General Writer: Active vs Passive Characters

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: , , , — ax20 @ 1:57 pm

One of the big problems I have noticed in a number of manuscripts that authors submit is they create a story so beyond the main character, that the character becomes a spectator. Perhaps its a civilian caught in a war zone where the soldiers bring him to safety and have him stay there while they take care of things. Or maybe it’s a non-vampire who spends her entire time being protected and rescued by her vampire boyfriend while she does nothing but wait to be captured the next time. Or it’s a teen character whose parents tell them what to do and they always listen. Either way, your character spends the entire story reacting to events instead of taking action.

If your character spends most of their time on the sidelines while things happen around them, it is time to reconsider your story. It’s just boring for the reader and extremely frustrating. You need to find a reason to get your character to take action.

A great example of this is in the latest 39 Clues book I read:
Grace Cahill is a thirteen year old girl who has a message that she needs to take into a war zone. She might have just given this message to someone else but not knowing who to trust, she determines to do it on her own. She gets there, delivers the message, and is told by the adults that things are being taken care of, she can now relax. But while she’s sitting alone and she decodes the message and realizes she had it wrong when she delivered it. She tries to tell the adults but they are all too busy to listen to a kid so she sets off to follow the clues herself.

There were many reasons why Grace might have been relegated to sit on the side. There were adults around to handle things, she might have passed off the responsibility to someone else. But for reasons constructed by the circumstances and by Grace herself, she is taking action, which ultimately places her in danger and into the thick of the story.

This is also the reason why Dumbledore, Sirius Black, and even Harry’s parents had to die in the Harry Potter series. It is the same reason why in the Chronicles of Narnia the Pevensies’ parents had to be elsewhere while they entered Narnia and why Aslan wasn’t around for most of the story. For this same reason, Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi had to die in Star Wars. These are all characters who, were they present, would have taken the action out of the hands of the characters they were mentoring and protecting. By taking their guardians away there is no one to stand between them and the battle that must be fought. (This is one of the main reasons why in kids’ books, even if you spend time wondering why the kids aren’t telling their parents what is happening, you understand the reason: if they told, the kids would be out of the story.)

A story is never as interesting if told by someone who is barely involved. Find reasons to make them part of the action through a combination of circumstances and personality and your story will immediately be more interesting.



  1. Very good story, very good point. Characters have to be an integral part of the story…not just pieces of furniture in the world you’re crafting. Thank you for sharing.

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    Comment by GD — June 23, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    • That’s an excellent way of putting it. Thanks!

      Comment by ax20 — June 23, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  2. This is a very good point; the main character has to be active in the story, or else it’s not interesting for readers. The writer may as well switch to someone else’s point of view, then.
    Even if they start off more passive; hesitant, perhaps. Unsure of what to do as they’re dragged along. So long as they eventually come to realize they can’t just sit idly by, the book will already have bonus points.

    Comment by Natasha McNeely — June 23, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

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