As a fiction writer, I often wonder what kind of character I am. Am I a sympathetic character, or are there scenarios in which I could be a villain? Most people, I suspect, could be either in extreme situations. But my introspection regarding stories goes beyond good and evil. I wonder if I am a passive character or an active character.
I know which I would rather be. It seems like a choice between being interesting and being boring. Of course, the reality is that in some situations I am passive, and in others active. No real person is entirely one or the other, just as no one is totally a villain or a hero.
However, for stories I always prefer active main characters. But what exactly does being active mean? Does it mean characters should charge at each other across fields brandishing swords? Dash into burning houses to save children?
Not necessarily. In fiction, action can be as simple as a meaningful gesture or a line of dialogue. Good writers know that dialogue is not just what characters say to each other, but what they do to each other.
But what about big, game-changing moves, sweeping actions that inspire awe? What makes them compelling? Is it enough for the action itself to be big, like the slaying of a dragon or an epic battle to save the world from evil?
To move readers, more is required. To a large extent, what inspires emotion is the decision that underlies what a character does. The harder the decision is, the more sacrifice it requires, and the more morally ambiguous it is, the more engaging the story tends to be.
I wish I had known that in high school. When I was a beginner, I tended to create passive characters, characters who took little initiative, made no sacrifices, and went along with what others wanted. For some reason, I equated passivity with being “nice” or sympathetic, when in reality it is the characters who take bold action who tend to be more sympathetic, even when they make huge and devastating mistakes.
I gave my characters easy, no-brainer decisions, the kind most anyone would make. If my character was hungry, she would eat, of course. If she was told what to do by people who seemed reasonable and “nice,”, why not do it? Given a choice between jail and freedom, she would choose freedom – naturally.
But real-life decisions are not always so simple, and readers know it. What if you take the same decisions and create a negative consequence to doing the obvious? What if a character has a reason for preferring jail to freedom, such as keeping a loved one, the real culprit, out of jail?
Or if the character is a villain, what if she chooses imprisonment to humiliate her family while avoiding the uncertainties that freedom entails? What if a character chooses to go hungry because, like Gandhi, he has a cause so compelling, he considers it worth sacrificing basic physical needs to the point of starvation? What if a character says no to the “reasonable” people who are trying to control her because she wants to create her own path?
That is the stuff of drama. When a character knowingly makes decisions to achieve a dramatic goal in such a way that brings about her own suffering or engenders conflict, that character has earned the title of active.
But what if you describe big actions – like the slaying of a dragon – without the character having to struggle with the decision? You risk ending up with shallow Hollywood action characters, boring, swashbuckling heroes who dash into danger with no thought to their own safety, not real people at all, but faceless cardboard cutouts brandishing swords or guns.
If the physical well-being of my characters means nothing to them, if they do not struggle – at least a little – with the momentous decision to risk their life, the characters are hard to identify with and do not seem quite real.
Giving characters difficult decisions adds plausibility. I am fond of ideal solutions, and I am constantly searching for them, but they rarely exist. As a result, I sometimes fail to take any action, which is a decision in itself and rarely the best one. With big decisions, the ones that really matter, some sacrifice is usually required.
A character who knowingly makes a big move knowing that negative consequences are certain is often more than an active character, but also a dynamic one who changes as a result of her actions.
In contrast, passive characters are static. They do not change their environments. They do not oppose those around them. They do not create the conflicts that are essential for drama. They let the situation carry them along. Unmoving, they fail to move readers. Without active characters, there is no story because stories are not primarily about what happens to characters, but what they do.
Active characters make “imperfect” decisions not just in the climax, but again and again in a way that illuminates who they are and renders them three-dimensional. In the novel Emily of New Moon, Emily – who is a child – defies an imposing aunt who is demanding to read her private journal. Rather than let her aunt extort her innermost secrets, Emily throws her journal into the fire. It is torture for her to let it go because she wants to be a writer and her journal is sacred to her, but her sacrifice reveals character: she values her privacy and detests being bullied more than she wants to keep her journal. Emily is not docile; she has her own moral compass and she is not afraid to use it even when opposed by an adult.
Morally ambiguous choices also generate reader engagement. There is no better example than the novel Sophie’s Choice. Sophie is a mother and a concentration camp prisoner during World War II. On the night after she enters a concentration camp, a cruel camp doctor gives her a terrible choice: He asks her to decide which of her two children should live; the other, he tells her, will die that night in a gas chamber. If Sophie fails to make a decision, both of her children will die.
Rather than lose both of her children, she chooses which child will live, knowing she will have to live with the consequences of consigning her other child to death. It is a decision so fraught with guilt it ultimately destroys her.
She could have been passive in that situation. She could have refused to make such a horrifying choice. But the higher aim of keeping at least one child alive outweighed her fear of remorse.
Beyond sympathy, imperfect decisions are the basis of plot, as in the popular T.V. show Breaking Bad. Walter White: An underachieving high school chemistry teacher, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, begins making and selling meth to ensure that his family will be provided for after he dies.
Needless to say, his decision comes with problems, such as how to deal with the ruthless meth-making crime lords who resent his competition and threaten the lives of Walter and his family. Or how to launder the vast influx of income without raising the suspicions of the IRS. Or how to keep his cop brother-in-law from discovering his terrible secret.
Walter lies to his brother-in-law, manipulates the crime lords, and hires a bumbling shyster lawyer to assist with money laundering – all of which naturally lead to further complications, problems that lead to new difficult decisions.
Plots are character-driven concatenations, branching chains of imperfect decisions that lead to other imperfect decisions. The plot of Breaking Bad is more than a sterile high school outline. It is organic, all made possible by Walter White continually deciding that the risks and drawbacks of his actions are worth the rewards.
Whether good or evil or something in-between, an active character is one who is willing to endure loss, risk death, provoke opposition, or march through the fires of hell in order to secure a goal or realize an ideal. A character who decides even when there is no clear right answer stands to be more than an active character, but also a dynamic one.
Such characters do not drift through their stories; they push their way through them. They seize the pen from the author, commandeer the desk chair, and write the stories themselves. They create their own conflicts. Some oppose the powerful, knowing full-well that the powerful will oppose them back.
Dynamic characters do not just react; they act. They fight. They persist. They suffer. They strive. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail. Through their decisions, they move the world and in doing so, they move readers as, beaten or triumphant, they discover to their amazement that they have changed more than the world; they have changed themselves.
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