Are Your Characters Too Passive?

Photo credit: Brother O'Mara on Flickr
So one of the critiques I’ve received a few times on WIPs I’ve been revising this year is centered on my characters. Specifically, characters who aren’t active enough.

Now, by “not active enough” I don’t mean that they didn’t exercise enough (though I mean, that might be the case too, but anyway). When you get the critique that your characters are too passive, it usually means they’re being reactive far too often. Things are happening to them, and they’re reacting to what’s happening, but they aren’t acting as agents of change. Which can quickly become a problem.

Now the good news is after getting this critique on two different projects, I’m now being super extra careful when plotting future WIPs to make sure that doesn’t happen again (because surprise! This is so much easier to fix when your book is a bunch of bullet points and flashcards). Bad news is if you get this critique on an existing, written manuscript, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and do some heavy lifting to fix it if it’s a widespread problem.

So how do you fix passive characters?

  1. Consider where your protagonist is reacting where they could be taking action. Depending on how widespread the issue is, this may be after a certain point in your manuscript, or something you’ll need to consider throughout the plot. Either way, pick some major points where your protagonist could be creating change and jot them down. 

  2. Be open to making big changes. This is important because when you change the way your characters behave, particularly when you’re giving them more agency to make change, well, there are going to be changes. But being afraid to revamp part or most of your plot will prevent you from making the fixes you need, so the best you can do is accept right now that there will possibly be large changes that you’ll need to make. And that’s okay. 

  3. Ask yourself, “What decision can my protagonist make that would create a change?” Brainstorm several ideas until you come up with something that makes sense for your plot and you’re happy with. Some ideas you come up with might sound ridiculous, but don’t filter—just write down whatever you come up with and filter them later. While ideally you want to go with a change that will weave into your existing plot well, as I said in the last point, don’t be afraid to go with something that’ll require a little legwork. Ultimately, you want to go with whatever will make your story the best that it can be—and sometimes that means a lot of work while revising. 

Have you ever encountered this problem, either in your own work or in a book/movie/TV show?

Twitter-sized bite:

Are your characters too passive? @Ava_Jae talks how to fix this problematic issue. (Click to tweet)

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