My favorite characters to read about and write about are active characters, especially when it comes to the leading protagonist and antagonist. I’m a bit more forgiving of passivity in minor supporting characters, but even they are greatly improved by giving them some active choices. The difference between active and passive characters is simple, but perhaps it doesn’t get enough attention.
With a passive character, the plot just happens to him. He’s going about his daily life when suddenly—BOOM! Plot events arrive and sweep him up in the narrative. When the main character or hero is passive, events are largely beyond his ability to affect. I often see this in stories that are plot-driven rather than character-driven, where the author has a potentially brilliant plot that needs to happen, and the characters are forced into it.
Active characters are ones whose choices drive the story. Active characters might make smart choices or foolish ones, selfish choices or altruistic ones. Those choices carry consequences that determine the events of the narrative. As I like to say about Meteor Mags, life doesn’t happen to her; she happens to life.
That isn’t to say that active characters are always in control. One of the most fun things about active characters is when they make choices that lead to their losing control. Take Dwight in Frank Miller’s Sin City story A Dame to Kill For. Every step of the way, Dwight makes choices that determine what happens next. But he is being manipulated by a femme fatale, and we as readers know that he really should know better. He is a delusional fool, but he is an active fool, and his foolish decisions lead to events spiraling out of his control and getting the ever-loving crap beat out of him several times.
Active characters can also be subjected to unexpected events. I don’t think anyone would accuse Meteor Mags of being passive, but the super-tornado that arrives in the middle of a heist gone wrong in Blind Alley Blues is an example of unexpected plot elements showing up to mess with her. Mags’ active nature leads her to see what opportunities the disaster presents, and she makes choices that bend the situation to her advantage. Plus, the reasons the heist goes wrong in the first place all relate to conscious, intentional choices made by her and other characters. They don’t sit around waiting for the plot; they are actively driving it by pressing forward with their agenda.
I’m a fan of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and its protagonist Llewelyn Moss and its antagonist Anton Chigurh are great examples of highly active characters. Moss chooses to examine the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, then he makes one of the stupidest decisions I have ever read. Later that night, he decides to take some water to the last survivor of the deal, and that foolish decision leads to all the pain and suffering which follows. I have always found this choice a bit suspect and possibly out of character for Moss, but the fact remains that he makes it and must deal with the consequences.
On the other side of things, Chigurh is a cold, calculating, homicidal maniac who makes choices every step of the way. In his famous scene with a gas station attendant, Chigurh uses a coin toss to determine whether he will kill the attendant—a conceit that appeals to blind chance as driving his actions, even though he is the one actively initiating the situation. Near the end of the story, Moss’ young wife calls out Chigurh on this bullshit, telling him “It’s just you.” And it is just him, making choices that drive the plot.
No Country is one of my favorite novels because both Chigurh and Moss make active choices while trying to achieve conflicting goals, and nearly every event in the book is the result of these two characters working at cross-purposes.
Besides being characters who can create the dramatic intensity of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and intensifying our emotional investment in seeing how such brutal conflict plays out, active characters earn our empathy and respect.
In comparison, passive characters seem like people who say, “Woe is me,” and blame anyone and everyone except themselves for their problems. Sure, we might feel sympathy for these downtrodden folks, but we can just as easily feel contempt for those who don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. And if they passively succumb to their fate, they lack the initiative we expect from heroes. They might as well be the beach being pounded by the ocean with no true agency of its own for us to get involved with.
But when an active character makes choices, we respect her for doing something besides lying on her back and thinking of England while life has its way with her. We can respect her for, at the very least, trying to do something about her situation. We might not agree with her choices, and we might even see them as foolish, but we can feel invested in her attempts to achieve her goals—even when she fails.
When those choices arise from deeply held conviction, we are more likely to empathize. Peter Parker’s active choice to continue trying to make the world better as Spider-man is a good example, because being Spider-man tends to have nothing but painful consequences for his personal life. Parker’s choices often lead him to more suffering than many of us would be willing to endure, but he remains committed to trying to do good things, to protecting people less powerful than he, and standing firm as a force for good in a world threatened by evil. We not only respect Parker; we empathize with his struggle. We don’t just feel sorry for him; we feel sorrow with him. When he succeeds, we feel that success, too. We become emotionally invested.
None of what I have said should be taken as advice to abandon tight, compelling plots and write by the seat of your pants. The important point is that rather than designing plots that simply happen to passive characters, construct plots that are driven by the choices the characters make.
Characters need goals, and they need to make decisions they believe will take them closer to those goals. They also need obstacles in their path—both the external obstacles of circumstance, and the internal obstacles of personal shortcomings they need to overcome. What lies do they tell themselves? What misconceptions do they have? Even the most active character can harbor beliefs that keep her distant from her goal, even as she tries to move forward.
In my years as a workshop leader, I saw some stories about passive characters who had no clear, primal, compelling goal they were so intent on reaching that they would have died for it. They were just people trotted on stage so the plot could happen to them, and I found that I simply didn’t care. But even when presented with a story in a genre or style I didn’t prefer, I could easily get swept up in the adventures of an active character whose choices—whether right or wrong—defined and drove events. Those were the characters I came to care about and whose fates I became personally invested in.
So whether you see your stories as more plot-driven or more character-driven, realize the best stories are both: where the character choices drive the plot forward, so readers become emotionally invested in the outcome.