Writing Excuses 9.32: Adjusting Character Proactivity

Let’s adjust sliders again! This episode references our sliding scales for characters, and this time around we’ll be talking about how proactive a character is. We also talk about the verb “protag.” Because protagging is what protagonists should do, especially later in our stories.

Our goal is to be able to consciously adjust a character’s level of proactivity in order to similarly adjust how engaging that character is for our audience. We talk about the techniques we rely on, and some of our favorite stories in which we’ve seen these techniques employed.



Tie your protagonist up, and then have them protag their way forward in the story with nothing but dialog.

The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, narrated by Diane Warren

8 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.32: Adjusting Character Proactivity”

  1. You mentioned steaks making you proactive.

    Samwise showed his proactivity with a rabbit broth.

  2. For those of you who think the writing prompt is impossible I direct your attention to “The Princess Bride”. Late in the movie Westley is literally paralyzed except for his mouth. He manages to be incredibly proactive in spite of the fact that all he can do is talk. Don’t steal directly from this movie. But do use it as inspiration. See if you can find a different way to have your character affect events solely by what she says.

  3. There are a few good examples of this, actually. The best one I’ve seen is probably Lindsay Buroker’s series in which the protagonist accomplishes what she does largely by luck, but you have to cheer for her because she’s /trying/.

  4. On a completely unrelated note, I think we need to standardize our terminology:

    antagonist -> protagonist
    antagonism -> protagonism
    antagonize -> protagonize
    antagonistic -> protagonistic
    antagonistically -> protagonistically

  5. From a reader’s point of view (I don’t write enough, sadly :C) I think that what really brings out pro-activity is have someone do something that is unexpected. It works if they’re just making choices but if they’re making unexpected choices we just see them as way more pro-active. In some cases is doing something wild and reckless. In others is doing something really smart. Others is simply doing something that might be expected for the reader but in-story is viewed negatively (an extremely lawful character breaking the law to do ‘What’s right’ is a pretty common example).

    It’s really hard to give examples of someone protagging without spoilers (so beware) but an easy one is Shallan from the Way of Kings. Right from the beginning it was her choice that she wanted to steal from Jasnah. She didn’t want to ask for help (that would be a huge decision, going all the way across the world to ask for help, but it would be expected) she wanted to steal it. And it’s that twist that makes as think she’s an interesting character.

    A series were protagging is seriously lacking is Twilight, it’s not that Bella does not make a decision. It’s that she makes a rather easy decision. Staying with a vampire might be considered an hard decision in other books, but in this one? It’s easy. Edward is a good guy, he only eats animals… It might get a bit dangerous but that never stopped horny teenagers from liking gang members. There isn’t any actual decision ever made. By anyone. The villains decide to attack… because that’s what they do. Then they defend themselves. And all the drama is pure glitter.

    It’s funny how the same story would be incredibly different, and Bella would be a way stronger character if it wasn’t such a light hearted choice. If Edward was actually an awful vampire that simply loved her, and she could forgive him for that. And the reason would be that now Bella’s choice is way harder.

    I think what makes really good proactive characters, imho is not simply having them make a choice. But having them make a difficult, weird or smart choice. A safe choice doesn’t even feel like a choice to the eyes of some readers.

  6. What a piece of work is man? Well… a character, at least, needs sympathy, competence, and a healthy dash of protagy!

    Speaking of which, here’s our latest transcript (also available in the archives):


    And a special bonus this week, here’s an index of the various podcasts and transcripts about three-pronged character development


    Remember, damn the torpedoes, full protaging ahead!

  7. Ahhh! I’ve been outed as a rookie by this podcast! I do have a main character who is watching and assisting other characters more than anything else. Why is this such a common rookie habit I wonder?

    Good news is, now that I’m conscious of it, I can see how I can steer the story to a more protagonist driven one. Another rookie tendency I have (according to previous podcasts) is having a large pile of characters all with stuff going on – except for my protagonist of course *smack my head*

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