Writing Excuses 9.32: Adjusting Character Proactivity
Key Points: Three-pronged character development: sympathy, competence, and proactivity make engaging characters. Characters need to protag, to move the story forward and act. Satisfied protagonists are inactive! Beware the villain problem, where the hero only acts because the villain is ruining things. Make sure your character plans, even if those plans get disrupted. Let them make choices. Sometimes having multiple antagonists or obstacles helps. Make sure your character wants something at the start of the story. Sometimes they may be satisfied, but something is missing. Protaging is having choices, making decisions, and spending effort to do it. If there is no action, time does not pass in the universe of your book. Give your character an opportunity to walk away, but choose to stay and act makes them protagy. Having a higher stake in the plot increases proactivity. Make it personal to the character. When a character loses their resources and friends, then takes action — that’s protaging!
[Mary] Season nine, episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, adjusting character proactivity.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] This is the third in our sequence of podcasts about how to adjust sliding scales on your characters in order to help make them more or less engaging as a character to read. Gen… You usually want them to be more engaging.
[Brandon] But the scale can go either way for helping with that. If you haven’t listened to the other two, we will link them in the liner notes. We’re going to talk about characters’ protaging. Which I now use as a verb. They can go protag, because of Howard.
[Howard] It’s a great verb. Great verb.
[Brandon] My entire class at BYU knows that it’s your fault I use it that way now.
[Howard] But it’s… From a writing standpoint, it’s easier to say than being proactive. We know what it means.
[Brandon] Let’s say what it means. Howard, what does it mean?
[Howard] Well, protag obviously comes from protagonist. The structure of story… The protagonist is someone who is moving the story forward for us, is taking action. He’s the person we’re following. He is, or she is, being proactive, hopefully. Weak stories often feature a protagonist who is observing what is going on and reacting, but not taking action. Often we find ourselves staring at the screen… I’m sorry, screaming at the screen or at the page…
[Brandon] Do something. Yes.
[Howard] Do. A. Thing. Please?
[Brandon] Why would you want therefore… I mean, it’s kind of obvious since Howard has said… But why would you want to move this scale?
[Mary] Again, sometimes you need to move it down so that you’ve got some place to go. A lot of times, the reason that you have a fairly inactive protagonist at the beginning is because they’re satisfied with their life. There isn’t anything… They don’t have any ambitions because they have everything that they think they want. So…
[Brandon] This is normally called the villain problem, a reference of it. The villain problem… You’ve heard us talk about it, but it’s the idea that the hero would not do anything if the villain did not come into their life and start ruining things, which then makes the villain the protager, which is a very odd thing to having your story. You need to compensate for it in some way. Now how can we therefore compensate for this? How can we move this bar up and have a character protag when maybe at the beginning they’re reacting?
[Mary] A lot of times, they are by necessity reacting. But one of the things you can do is instead of waiting for the villain to take action that the character then reacts to, you can have the character start to make plans for how they will deal with the things. These plans don’t necessarily have to be things that they will follow through on. The plans can be disrupted, but the first step is having a character who is making choices.
[Howard] A great example of this is Andy Weir’s The Martian, which we’ve promoed on the show before. Our protagonist has been wounded and stranded on Mars. This is near future… 10 or 15 or 20 years in the future. With technology that we’re all familiar with. Been wounded and his reaction is to stagger back to the habitat. He’s reacting the whole time. “I need to not bleed to death through my suit out here in the cold. Okay. I’m in the habitat. I’ve got the door shut. Now what?” He starts making plans. He just starts doing the math. Even though the math is coming up things like, “Yup. I’m going to starve to death three years and six months before the next ship arrives” he’s still doing the math. As he does the math, he starts looking for ways to adjust the numbers. It’s really neat how he moves from purely reactive to very, very protagy.
[Brandon] Now I’m going to take this another direction… Oh, did you have something first to say?
[Dan] I was just going to say that one way to do this is to make sure your story has more than one antagonist in it. Or more than one obstacle. So there’s the villain problem, but if the book starts with your character up against a different villain or some other big problem… If the book starts with them as a farmer before the Dark Lord arrives and conquers the kingdom, they can still protag on their farm. We can still see them being active and doing things and being likable and competent in a different arena.
[Brandon] I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Always make your character want something at the start of a story, even if it’s just a cup of water.” Yes. I would say that this is one of the main ways that you move this sliding scale… Bar. You probably want to be making your character move up on this bar as much as possible for the story you want to tell. Granted… Excuse me… You may want sometimes to have it start low and go somewhere. But having them pro… Want something and be working on something when the plot begins will give a sense that this character is capable of protaging in the future, and makes you interested in them.
[Dan] The Dark Knight does this great. Because he starts off with the goal of quitting, which is an odd thing to be proactive about, but it works, because he’s trying, in the beginning very strongly and then continually throughout the movie, to set the city up so that it can run itself without his help. Then by the end, of course, that becomes part of his whole character arc and sacrifice.
[Brandon] Right. Now, I want to take this another direction, as I was saying earlier, and mentioned that one way to have a character… The natural state of many characters is I’m satisfied. Well, I’m satisfied is usually a front for something else with a good character. If you are writing in this character’s head, and you can give a sense of… A latent sense of loss, is how I would call it. Now this character knows something is missing from their life, but they don’t know what it is. Yet of course, my life is perfect, I have everything I want. What more? And yet, there is something missing. When you can get this across, this will really help. This sense of the beginning, yes, I’m not yet reacting… Or I’m not yet acting, but I want to. A piece of me really wants to go on this adventure. The new Hobbit film, for all its flaws, I think actually kind of gets this across. Maybe even one of these things that Jackson added that the book doesn’t, is when Bilbo decides I really wanted this all along even though I didn’t know it, that’s a very nice moment for you. If you can seed that as a writer ahead of time, you’ll have a very nice character moment.
[Dan] The Incredibles does this really well, because the whole first half of that movie is him kind of sort of loving his life. But secretly he goes out at night and tries to help people and tries to reclaim his former glory.
[Mary] I’m just going to flag this for the people who are long time listeners. What we’re talking about is the character arc from the MICE quotient, which is character’s dissatisfaction with their role in life.
[Brandon] Yup. But this whole idea that they are… You mentioned earlier that they won’t act unless something intrudes…
[Howard] A good example of the character who is satisfied but doesn’t… Isn’t willing to admit that he needs something else, is… I’ve forgotten the character’s name, but he is our main human character in The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu. Because he ends up with an alien intelligence in his head helping him and trying to get him to participate in this great fight. He is… He wants his old life back. He doesn’t want to have to move. Then he crosses this threshold where he realizes, “Oh. I really did need more than what I had.” That’s a fun moment in the book where he starts stepping out.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. This week we are promo’ing The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley which we realized we had never promoted before, which is a great hole in our recommendation list. This is my wife’s favorite book of all time. I read it as a young man who had just discovered the fantasy genre. It was part of this entire thing that got me into the genre. It is a delightful classic story. The interesting thing with this conversation is it’s about a character who is reacting for much of the story. You can see how Robin McKinley makes Harry, who’s a girl, sympathetic and interesting and acting despite the fact that the main story that they’re part of, they are having… She’s having to react to… It’s a classic. It’s a wonderful story, well told, that I recommend to all of you.
[Howard] It’s aged really well.
[Brandon] Yes it has.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership, and download a copy of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, narrated by Diane Warren, for free.
[Brandon] When I got married, I forced my wife to read The Wheel of Time that she’d never… She’d read the first book and never finished. She forced me to reread The Blue Sword. Timewise, I’m not sure who got the better end of that deal.
[Brandon] So one aspect of this that I wanted to mention is, I view plot as a sense of progression. You have a goal, and your plot is getting little pieces of that goal, or little steps toward that goal, as the story progresses. One way you can work with proactivity is, the person who has control over how you are proceeding towards your goal is a person who has a lot of power over the proactivity realm. So you can actually make a character who is progressing us toward our goal while at the same time in many other ways, they may not be actively protaging. If that makes sense in any way. I have had characters who in a book, they are doing fundamental research that is going to be very important to the plot and we are moving forward, and yet as an active character, all they’re doing is reading books and providing information. This character is helping us move along our goal. We get a very sense that they are protaging, and that they are an active character, when really they’re spending a lot of time sitting in a room, and other people are hitting other people with swords.
[Mary] I think that that is… That’s one of the keys to protaging. It’s the choice and the effort. So… It’s not just the choice. You have a choice. You can or you can not act. It’s making the decision to act, and the effort to do it. That… Someone who doesn’t have a choice to act is not protaging.
[Brandon] Excellent. That’s wonderful.
[Dan] Yeah. I wanted to present an example that is in some ways the exact opposite of what you just described, which would be Ender from Ender’s Game. He is an active protagonist in a bunch of little things that do not progress the story.
[Brandon] That’s true.
[Dan] The story is going on almost without his input until the very end. But he is incredibly active and he is incredibly engaged and he overcomes one challenge, knocks it down, another one comes up, and he knocks it down.
[Brandon] I guess that would depend on how you define that plot.
[Brandon] Because in my head, that’s still underdog sports story, and in that archetype, he is very prot… Active. But in the super plot that he’s not as aware of, he is not.
[Howard] Okay. At risk of introducing a metaphor that’s just ridiculous, in A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking talks about time almost jokingly, saying it is the quantity of the universe… The quality of the universe that prevents all things from happening at once. But it is also measured by the actions of the discrete elements of the universe. This came to me, Brandon, when you said, “Plot is defined by the actions of the characters.” This really is… If you treat your book as its own universe, it is the actions of the characters that are moving this book forward. If your characters aren’t acting, and what you’ve got is a universe in which time doesn’t exist, right? Okay, that’s too metaphysical. I’ll stop.
[Brandon] Let’s ask a different question. We have a writer who says, “All right. My writing groups are telling me my character is not active enough. Where have I gone wrong? How can I move this bar up? What are specific tools I can use?
[Mary] Well, one of the things that I was going to say is that a lot of times people will mistake an active character for one who is jumping around and hitting things. I’ve got a short story called Locked In in which my character has ALS and is completely locked in, can’t even blink by himself anymore. But he is an active protagonist because he is still thinking and making efforts and has desires. So this is not something… He actually has the choice to walk away. So if you want to make your character more protagonisty, giving them the opportunity to walk away and having them choose to not walk away and to take action instead will make them more active.
[Brandon] Excellent point. I would say another one would be making them have a higher stake in the plot is a great way to kind of get across their proactivity. A lot of early rookie mistakes are the plot is happening to this other character and I am observing and helping out with this plot rather than participating as the main focus of the plot.
[Mary] But I think you can still do that.
[Brandon] Yeah, you can.
[Mary] Again, this is something that I just had to wrestle with. But it very much still, even with a character who isn’t… who isn’t Gandalf who has all the power. Them wanting to do that, wanting to be the one who makes the change…
[Brandon] Or giving them some stakes.
[Mary] Giving them some stakes.
[Brandon] The problem with this sid… This character who’s observing is often they don’t have the same stakes as the people involved. You’ve got to make it personal to them. That personal to them will naturally force you to make this character act some more. Dan, you had another one?
[Dan] This is a weird one, but I’m thinking about people like Taran, assistant pig-keeper. Who is incredibly proactive because of how incompetent he is. He is reckless, and he makes poor decisions. That’s what drives a lot of the plots that he is in. I don’t necessarily know if that’s great advice. “Make your character less competent and suddenly they’ll start doing dumb things…”
[Howard] That works well. I was just… I don’t know how to fix my car. But if my car breaks down, on the side of the road… Well, if my car breaks down, hopefully I’ll pull it to the side of the road. The first thing I’ll do is get out of the car and open the hood. I do not know what to do under the hood, but I’m going to start by opening the hood because I know that whoever’s going to solve this problem is going to do it with their hands in there. I don’t know what step comes next. Maybe I’ll begin poking things. It’s possible that your protagonist is in a similar situation and what you need to have them do is get out of the car and open the hood.
[Mary] I think that’s basically getting into something we’ve talked about before, which is try-fail cycles. In another episode, I talked about the yes-but, no-and sequence which is that your character tries something and does it succeed? Yes, but they land in a worse situation. Or does it succeed? No, and they land in a worse situation. It’s always they land in a worse situation.
[Brandon] I would say that in this realm, this slider is the hardest one to push low. This is the slider that you have to be really careful if you’re trying to bring this all the way down to the bottom. Have a good reason why you’re doing it. These types of characters don’t tend to make really interesting and engaging characters. You can do it. But it is the hardest one.
[Howard] Maybe one that you need to pull down because the character for whom you are pulling it down is not your protagonist.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s true. Yes. That’s a very good point.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s an excellent point. The other thing that you might have is you might have a character who’s depressed. This is a hallmark of depression.
[Brandon] It is.
[Mary] Which is the difficulty in motivating yourself. That… Having that arc again…
[Brandon] Yeah. I would suggest that when you’re running into these situations, if you want the character to not protag in the main plot, giving him something else to do will really mitigate this. Even if you’re dealing with depression and things like this with your character saying, “I am…” My editor has depression. When he has depression, he actually goes and does stuff. He just does the stuff he’s not supposed to do. Which is a great way to have something, rather than just sitting there and doing nothing. That’s a great way to have people go. Okay, go ahead, Dan.
[Dan] I think another great way to raise the proactivity of your characters is to take away their resources and take away their friends. The perfect example of this is Frodo who is incredibly inactive for most of Fellowship of the Ring. It is not until he leaves everyone else that he starts doing things on his own. So if you’re writing a book and you’re like, “I’ve got Legolas and I’ve got Gimli and I’ve got all these amazing characters…” You might have to kill some of those darlings or send them off to another part of your story so that your Frodo can be active and engaged.
[Mary] This is why they’re…
[Howard] It’s the end of Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo pushes off in the boat by himself where he really becomes our protagonist.
[Dan] Yeah. Prior to that, he’s just a side character.
[Brandon] Well, there is the I’ll take the ring moment. Which is his first threshold. But yes.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and have our writing prompt, which Howard is going to provide for us.
[Howard] Okay. This is going to sound a little bit like one of those classic melodrama movies from the 30s. Take your hero and tie him up so he is physically immobile. All he or she can do is talk. With nothing but words, have this person be proactive and protag their way out of the situation they’re in.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.