Writing Excuses 13.2: Writing Active Characters
Key points: Active characters. Some characters seem to just observe events, are very passive. How can we move them to making decisions, be a part of events, be active? First, go and do things! Second, make sure your characters make plans and attempt to act on those plans. Not just reacting, but taking steps to move forward. Being an active character is not just external doing, but also internal choices and decisions. Desire! Make sure your characters want things. And make sure your readers feel those wants, those desires. Motivation! What do they want, what is their goal? Reluctant protagonists? How can they be interesting if they’re not engaging the main plot? How do you transition them into engaging the main plot? Start with a personal goal, and let circumstances build a secondary motivation. Reluctant characters have a motivation that is more important to them than the main plot. The transition is when they start to recognize the importance of the main plot. Watch out for characters who are just waiting for the story to start, to jump into a riproaring adventure. Also, be aware that as a writer, you may think being an observer is natural. But… Make it more personal. Make sure the character has a desire. And make sure they have the ability to take action, that they have agency. When a character changes motivation, go through the stages of resistance, exploration. Use several catalyst points. Delve deeper into the character, and examine their why’s. Why aren’t they jumping in? Make sure they have small goals to accomplish along the way. In each scene, think about the principal action of the scene, and how the character intersects the plot threads. Make sure that they advance all the plot threads. Think about character motivation as architectural, and look for the keystones.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode Two.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Active Characters.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] Great. We are recording with what we call our Chicago team this week. You’ll be hearing from them every second week of the month. I would like them to introduce themselves.
[Amal] Hi, my name’s Amal. [Amal El-Mohtar] I’m an author, critic, poet. I write short fiction and poetry mostly. I write reviews for NPR, and very recently, for the New York Times. I recently won a bunch of awards, the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo awards for a short story of mine called Seasons of Glass and Iron.
[Maurice] Nice. I’m Maurice Broaddus, and I am a science fiction and fantasy and horror author. I wrote the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court. I have a short story collection out right now. I’ve written… I’ve had published close to 100 short stories, and most recently out is my novella Buffalo Soldier.
[Mary] And he’s also an editor, as well.
[Maurice] Oh, yes.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about active characters today. I bring this up early in the season because it is something that I notice a lot of my students do, and I notice I did it a lot early in my career, is that I would set a story with the character observing events, or who was very passive at the beginning of the story. This isn’t always a bad thing. But, we generally in writing want to push our characters towards making decisions, being a part of events and that sort of thing. So I’m going to ask the podcasters how do you go about making your characters more active?
[Mary] There’s a couple of different tricks that I use. I mean, one of them is obviously they can go and do things. But a lot of it is making sure that they are making plans and then attempting to act on those plans. A lot of times, what happens when you have a character that feels very passive is that they are only reacting to the things that are going on around them, rather than taking steps to move forward. So, for me, being an active character is not just about the external things that they’re doing, but also the internal choices lead them to those motion action points.
[Amal] I completely agree with that. To me, what makes an active character, almost more than anything else, is desire. I mean, just to want things. Usually that’s intimately connected to plot, what does your character want. But I think there’s a difference between giving them a want and working to make people feel the things that they want. So having a character just desire something in a way that makes the reader also desire the thing, or just feel that tension. I like the point about passive versus active, though, because the idea that… To me, you can have an active character who’s trapped in a jail cell. Who’s basically just stuck in one place, but as long as their desire is active, so long as their wanting is active, then that will make them seem an active character.
[Maurice] For me, it does come down to motivation. What is it they want? What is their goal, what do they want? But also, on the flipside, I’m a big believer in the reluctant protagonist.
[Chorus of yeah!]
[Maurice] So, a lot of times, my characters just want to be left alone.
[Maurice] They’re just hanging out. But then circumstances arise, that they’re like, “Oh, man. I’m going to have to do something.” Because a lot of times, we don’t know what we want until something pops up.
[Brandon] So, let me push you on that one, then, because that’s one of the best story archetypes out there, right? How do you make that character interesting when they are not engaging with the main plot? Then, second question, how do you transition them toward engaging with the main plot? What are your steps?
[Maurice] So… Okay, so I’ll start this by saying sometimes I write novels just for me. So, like, most recently, there was a novel I wrote, I’m not even trying to sell it, I just wanted to do it because I really loved this character. But it began with this character who all he wanted to do was be left alone so he can get high.
[Maurice] That was his sole goal for the whole time, for the book. But circumstance wouldn’t allow him to do that. He ended up getting dragged along into this sort of like a… It’s a steampunk novel, so it’s kind of like a steampunk version of the Black Lives Matter movement…
[Maurice] Because he’s suddenly being caught up in all these circumstances where he’s just dragged along. He’s like, “I really, really don’t care about your cause. I just want to be left alone to get high.”
[Maurice] So, what happens is, I basically end up providing him a secondary motivation. So, yes, his main goal is to get high. Three quarters of the way through the book, I allow him to finally get high. But then, by that point, he now has a secondary motivation, which is he’s now, because of circumstances, seen the plight of his people. He has seen the injustices that have occurred. So now that he’s fulfilled his primary goal, he’s like, “All right, now I need to take steps to… What can we do to correct this problem?”
[Amal] I was reminded of… There’s a story by Ursula Vernon called, I think, Sun, Moon, Dust? That was on Uncanny. The protagonist is a gardener who’s inherited a sword that is exclusively for barbarians. The sword has like these trapped spirits in it that really, really, really want to teach this gardener to be a barbarian. He’s like, “but I literally just want to garden. Like, I don’t want to do anything else but garden.” It’s still super compelling, because his desire is to not be engaged.
[Mary] I think that that’s… For me, really, the thing is that these inactive reluctant characters are reluctant because there is something that is more important to them than main plot. So they are making plans. They are trying to accomplish something, which is to stay put and maintain the status quo that they already have. There was a… I used to work on the show called LazyTown. The antagonist for this… Granted, not a main character, but a very active character… I mean, not the protagonist. Definitely the antagonist. His goal was to be lazy and to take a nap. The length that this man went to in order to try to do that…
[Mary] The ridiculous costumes, the sheer amount of contrivance that he went through…
[Mary] Made him the least lazy person in LazyTown. So I think that you can have a character who is actively trying to avoid being engaged. For me, the moment that transitions them into being the person who is engaged and is driving towards the end is when they start to recognize the importance of that new storyline, that it becomes more important to them than getting high or gardening, when they start to recognize the value of it, and how it relates to themselves. I think that’s when they start… Stop being the reluctant character… I mean, they still may be reluctant, but where they start engaging more proactively.
[Brandon] One thing I’ve noticed… And why I bring this up is… I guess there’s two things. The one we’ve really kind of covered and hit hard, and I see this a lot in students, is the character who seems like they’re waiting for the story to start. You can just tell they’re waiting, and then they’re going to go on a riproaring adventure. But they’re not really a person until that happens. The second thing I often see is the character… I think this happens naturally to us. When I look at my early stories, why I did this, it’s because as a teenager, I was all… I was never the decision-maker. I was never at the center of anything. I always observed what everyone was doing. As a writer, you tend to be somewhat observant. So I started writing these stories about somebody who would stand at the side of a really important event, and would observe the story happening for basically the entire story. I’m not saying you can’t write a story like that. In fact, I know that our listeners are going to be like, “Well, I’m going to write a really great story like that!”
[Amal] It’s called The Great Gatsby.
[Brandon] There are some really great stories written that way, but it should be, I think, the exception, not the rule. If you’re doing it by accident, that’s what you need to watch out for. So let me ask you that one. Let’s say you come across a student’s work where you notice that they are writing a lot of characters who stand and observe events. What advice could you give them, that maybe you’ve been through or whatnot, where you’ve taken a character and you just kind of just made it more personal for them, involve them in the main story more?
[Mary] Well, you’ve just answered that. You make it more personal to them. Which gets back to what Amal was saying earlier, where she was talking about making sure a character has a desire. A lot of times when… Certainly, when I was a teenager and watching things, my desire was to just go home. That was all. I wasn’t in a position where I could take action. So I think the two things are to one, give them a desire, but the other is to give them the ability to take action. That a lot of times, this is something that we forget to provide our character, that they don’t have any degree of agency, that they can’t take action even if they wanted to.
[Amal] I have a short story that’s almost exactly this. It’s called Madeleine. The premise of it is that this woman has participated in the clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug, and now she’s experiencing flashbacks to memories that are basically hallucinations. It feels like time travel as a consequence. So literally, a lot of the story is her just experiencing extremely vivid memories and observing them. What I did to try and make that engaging was to really dive deep into the sensory affects of the story, so that you could get a sense of what it would feel like to just have this really dislocating and terrifying thing happen to you. So that it’s not as much then about what Madel… Like, the character’s name is Madeleine. It’s got Proust all over it. But…
[Amal] But, it’s not about necessarily what she’s doing, but how you’re experiencing what she’s experiencing.
[Brandon] Excellent. Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is Seasons of Glass and Iron.
[Mary] Yep. By…
[Amal] That’s by me.
[Amal] It’s a… So this is a short story in an anthology called The Star Lit Wood: New Fairytales edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien. The anthology is super, super, super amazing. I can’t recommend it enough. My story in it is… That’s the story that won the Hugo this year. My first ever Hugo and my first ever Nebula. I was really delighted with it. So, yeah. That’s my thing. It’s a… Basically a mashup of two fairytales. The whole [oeuvre?] of the book is to retell or engage with fairytales in an interesting way. So I imagined one woman, Tabitha, who is forced to walk for seven years in iron shoes meeting this other woman, Anita, who is a princess stuck on a glass hill. The iron shoes enable her to climb the glass hill, and they talk to each other and have conversations, and then the rest… Is spoilers.
[Brandon] Awesome, Amal. Thank you.
[Brandon] Let me pitch you guys another question. So oftentimes, you’re going to have this character, like Maurice was talking about, that’s going to go through a transformation, and is eventually going to become very active. How do you help a character who’s changing their motivation mid-stride not feel like they’re just committing a betrayal of their character? How do you transition them towards someone who would actually act against their earlier motivations or at least cross purposes?
[Mary] I’m going to talk about this more later in the season when we get to character arcs, but one of the things that I find is that there’s a series of stages that people go through. This stage when you’re transitioning… A lot of times, we try to get the character to jump straight from being reluctant to being fully committed. But you actually go through a stage where you are resisting the idea, and also where you begin to explore. So I think one of the things that you can do is you can give your character, rather than just one catalyst point that causes the change, to give them a couple of them that move them a little bit closer to that point.
[Brandon] Maurice, any tips?
[Maurice] So, a lot of times if I have a character who is… Lacks that agency and is not jumping into this… Right into his circumstances or her circumstances, there’s a reason why they’re not. So that gives me a great opportunity, for one, to delve deeper into that character and examine, “All right, why aren’t you? Taking more agency? Why aren’t you leaping into this adventure?” So that transformation then becomes a series of examining those why’s. He has or they have these reasons. During the course of the story, they’re going to keep examining those why’s and keep pressing in on those why’s. Why aren’t I taking more action? Why aren’t I participating? So examining the why’s is what I would call that sort of path to transformation.
[Brandon] Something that I do in my writing is I often have one of these characters that’s going to become part of something larger, and I have this smaller thing we’ve talked about, where this is what their initial motivations are. For me, what really helps a story move is making sure they have small goals to accomplish along the way. For me, it’s breaking it down so that I can… I actively try to show the reader, “Here is the character working toward their thing.” If they’re a stamp collector, I show a book where they have half the stamps they need. Little clues along the way that they are achieving this. Because one thing I worry about, as a writer, is losing track then of the character after I’ve established them, once the main plot comes along and hits them like a freight train…
[Brandon] I don’t want you to have forgotten, by the end of the story, the thing that made you really intrigued with this. This character was collecting stamps at the beginning, and you’re really into it, because they really want to find this stamp. You don’t want to forget that that person is the same person that you started the story with. Little things they can accomplish all the way through… I like that your character managed to get high, halfway through the story, right?
They, like, they got to accomplish, they got to work toward what their goal was, stated at the beginning, even if they come to realize there is a larger problem to tackle.
[Mary] I recently had this realization about… When I was… I was trying… It was one of those things where I was trying to explain it to a student, and it was a thing that I did intuitively. Finally realize that when I’m doing plots, that it’s very easy to drop plot threads. So what I wind up doing now is, when I’m plotting out, whether it’s a short story or a novel, I have “What is the principal action of the scene?” Which is the thing the character is actually doing, and then “How does this advance the plot?” I have to answer the how does this advance… How does the plot advance for each of the plot threads that I’m planning on this character intersecting. So if they’re intersecting an event thread and an idea thread and a character thread, then I have to make sure that there is something, even if it’s not huge, but some small aspect of that that is advancing for them.
[Amal] I love reading conversations so much, and I feel like so little… So few books give me conversations that feel like they have consequence. Because… So… I… So in terms of, I love to see a character’s mind change in a book. I love to see it change as a consequence of someone having changed their mind. Because I feel like that’s this aspect of verisimilitude that we miss a lot of times when we’re writing. We want to write action, we want to write things that are exciting, and conversations aren’t exciting to most people. But I really love talking…
[Amal] So I just… It infuriates me when in something like Marvel’s Civil War, people have a conversation that goes nowhere. I’m like, “Okay, but… Come on. This is an obvi… Why aren’t?” It just… The stopping and stalling of a conversation for plot reasons, because you can’t possibly resolve this through conversation, because you need to have a huge Civil War thing is really irritating to me. So, I would rather, in those situations, see a character change their mind. Even if it seems like it contradicts things before, because we literally do that all the time. In those cases, what it requires, though, is to have a conversation that manages to get to the heart of what the characters care about. Like, I think of character motivation in a kind of architectural way, where you can have a sort of keystone of motivation, which, if that is moved, if that is removed, if that is chipped or affected, then the edifice of motivation is going to start to be structurally unsound, right? So… I think that conversations can do those things.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are out of time on this episode. It’s been a really great discussion.
[Brandon] Amal, you have our homework.
[Amal] Yes. So, I write poetry. I love poems. A lot of people are scared of them, but you shouldn’t be. What I would like to recommend as homework is that you find a poem written in first person, and write that poem in third person instead. Write it as if… Basically, extract that first-person character and write them as a character that you’re observing.
[Mary] You had said to write a story around it…
[Amal] Write a story around it. Yeah. So if you take something like John Keats La Belle Dame sans Merci, “Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,” and then the knight starts responding. Right that is a scene you’re actually observing, and give them motivations. Especially, because poems are ambiguous, sometimes difficult, so if you managed to decide a whole bunch of things that a poem leaves ambiguous instead and turn that into prose… I think that could be really neat.
[Brandon] Awesome. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.