The Most Common Intermediate Mistake:

Inactive protagonists

The reason I’m calling this “the most common intermediate mistake” is that it seems like most of the people whose manuscripts I’ve critiqued in the past few years—many of them wonderful writers! —have stories that have suffered to a greater or lesser extent from inactive protagonists. (So yes, sorry, I am talking about you—but yours is only one of the seven…eight…manuscripts that got me thinking about this.)

An active character isn’t just someone who runs around swinging a sword a lot, or experiences a bunch of dramatic happenings. An active character is one who has a overarching story goal, he’s taking actions to try to achieve that goal, and his actions change the story situation. In fact, his actions are driving the story.

A passive character is one that just reacts when the story happens to him—or around him. They may witness a lot of dramatic happenings, but they don’t do anything themselves to change their situation. If they try to do something, the situation doesn’t change because of their actions. And other people usually end up solving their problems for them.

For instance:

Passive: Character learns that her parents are planning to move to a dog-free building, so Muffy will have to go to the pound. She is furious and saddened, and feels deeply, and yells at her parents. She has long, heartburning talks with her friends about how horrible this is. She tries to convince everyone she knows to adopt Muffy, but no one can. She takes Muffy on long sad walks and befriends a lonely older woman who wants to take Muffy, but she too lives in a dog free apartment. But lonely woman used to be a child psychologist, and she is so moved by wimpy girl’s plight that she goes to the parents and explains why dogs are so important to kids, and the parents relent and decide to stay in their current home instead of moving.

Active: Character learns that her parents are planning to move to a dog-free building, so Muffy will have to go. She resolves to keep Muffy, whatever the cost. So she scopes out dog friendly apartments in the area and learns that due to a new city ordinance there aren’t any. She writes letters to the paper arguing against the ordinance and organizes a demonstration in front of the city hall that gets her father—who works for the mayor’s office—fired. Now mother’s job is the only one keeping family in dog food and mortgage payments, and the cheaper dog-hating apartment is closer to mom’s job. They’re going to move next week, instead of two months from now. Heroine says, “You want me to get you fired too, Mom? I bet I can.” Parents, understandably, ground her forever. She throws Muffy in a back pack and runs away to grandma’s empty house. (Grandma’s vacationing in Florida for a few months, but heroine knows where she keeps a spare key.) She hides out with Muffy in Grandma’s house till the police find her and drag her home, and furious parents send Muffy to the shelter. Heroine breaks out of her locked room and sells the guitar she loves to get money to buy Muffy back. Then she gives Muffy to a friend to keep—her heart is breaking, and she realizes that this anti-dog ordinance isn’t just inconvenient for her, it hurts everyone who loves a dog! She raids fired father’s computer for something to use to blackmail the mayor into overturning the ordinance and finds a note to an event scheduler saying that the mayor won’t speak at any event where dogs might be present. Curious, she delves into newspaper archives and learns that the mayor was mauled as a child and is deathly afraid of dogs—that’s why he’s trying to rid the city of them! She…

OK, I have no idea how she finally overturns the ordinance so she can keep Muffy, and this kind of action is a bit on the crazy side—I’m just throwing out ideas for things she could do. But even though it’s not entirely serious, isn’t our heroine here more interesting than wimpy kid? And you see how much more story she generates? How it’s her actions that drive the plot, instead of the story happening to her?

It’s possible to write compelling stories about weak characters who grow stronger as the story goes on—in fact, that can be good character arc—but it’s a lot harder to make a soft character interesting. Melanie, in Gone with the Wind, is incredibly tough in her own way—Melanie’s ability to love both Ashley and Scarlett, despite her knowledge that they had a “thing” for each other, is every bit as strong and courageous as anything Scarlett did. Yet when Scarlett’s on the stage no one even notices Melanie. Because Melanie only endures, and Scarlett is the one who acts.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if your Main Character is active in the story or not:

What is the goal my MC is trying to achieve from the beginning of the story?

(Mind you, this goal can change—in fact, having MC set out for goal A and realize after she’s reached it that what she really wants is B can be a very effective plot twist. But her goal must be clear at all times.)

Muffy’s mistress wants to keep her dog.

What does she do to try to achieve her goal? List those actions:

She tries to find dog friendly apartments.
She organizes a demonstration.
She argues with parents.
She runs away with Muffy.
She buys Muffy back from shelter and hides her with friend.
She researches mayor with blackmail in mind.

How do these actions—whether they fail or succeed—change the story situation? And are some/many of the obstacles MC runs into a result of her own actions?

(Sometimes failure will just take MC back to square one, but if that happens too often your story will be static. The basic situation needs to be changed in some way by most of the MC’s actions—usually for the worse. Her actions have changed the situation when they force other people to try to stop her. And there are exceptions to this: sometimes her actions will change the situation for the better, but then other problems ensue. And the initial story problem will usually be caused by outside forces.)

Because she gets her father fired, they have to move sooner.
Because she threatens mom’s job, her parents ground her forever.
Because she runs away, she’s locked in her room and Muffy’s sent to the shelter.
To get Muffy out of the shelter, she has to sell her treasured guitar.

And finally—and critically important—is it your MC who is primarily responsible for solving the important story problems?

(Adults writing for kids frequently have a protagonist go to some wise adult who helps them solve their story problem. (Teachers in particular are prone to this—sorry, teachers.) But while it might be great life advice for a kid to go to a teacher, councilor, neighbor or relative with their problem and get that help they need, it’s terrible fiction! If you must have them go to an adult for aid, then you have to make sure the adult only assists the protagonist with actions the protagonist initiates. For instance, a councilor could offer some techniques for coping with ADD, but when the protagonist tries those techniques they fail for her. However, she can then use the councilor’s information as a springboard to create some original techniques that do work for her. A kid doesn’t actually have to capture a criminal and haul them to jail—but they have to be the ones who discovered what the criminal was up to, figured out how to get evidence against them, and took that evidence to the police and convinced them to act—under those circumstances it’s OK for the police to do the hands-on arresting.)

She is the one who runs away with Muffy, stopping the immediate move.
She is the one who gets Muffy back from the shelter before she can be sold to a new owner.
She’s the one who will ultimately thwart the mayor.

—and no one is giving her any significant help. The reporter who publishes articles about the ordinance, the demonstrators, the friend who takes Muffy temporarily, they’re just assisting with actions the MC initiated.

If your protagonist passed these tests, if she has a goal, and a plan to carry it out, and she revises that plan with each failure and plans again and keeps on doing things to accomplish her goal—then the reader will be cheering when she finally succeeds.

And if she flunked those tests, if all she does to try to keep Muffy is deeply feel how horrible and unfair it would be to lose her dog until someone she meets by chance solves the problem, then even the happiest ending will leave the reader yawning—or irritated with your protagonist for being such a whiny wimp!

So what can you do about it?

In my next tip, I’ll talk about Scene/Sequel dramatic structure—one of the simplest plotting techniques, but one which is guaranteed to make your protagonist active, pick up your novel’s pace, and boost dramatic tension throughout your story.

Spring 2011

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