Welcome to the first post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better. They’ll be applicable to most of us no matter what we’re writing, though some people will find that certain posts are more relevant than others. I also promise that the subjects won’t be ‘building tension,’ ‘realistic dialogue,’ or ‘how to write the best book ever!’
Today I’m going to start with the shortest of the topics: Writing a proactive protagonist.
If your protagonist is too far out of his or her depth for too long, they’ll be boring. Readers love a hero who can say the things they won’t and do the things they can’t. They love a character who makes things happen, outsmarts the bad guy, achieves the impossible. Characters accomplish this by being active, by taking charge and doing things based on their internal motivations and not just as a response to external events.
This topic really hit home for me when I looked back at an old manuscript about a (hold your breath for originality) Detective. I liked him a lot – he had a complicated and interesting past, strong skill set, and good attitude. He was smart as hell.
And for the first 2/3 of the book he didn’t do anything.
He sort of just floated from place to place as everything happened around him – sure he did things like follow standard police procedure and worry about how to save a kidnapped girl / avenge a murder / insert inciting incident here. But he didn’t take charge and do something of his own, change the course of the plot, or make the antagonist respond to him until nearly the end of the book. The plot might have been fine, but by that point it was too late for him to be a strong character, even if he did save the day in the end. He was a taker for the first chunk of the book and that was the impression he left on readers. Think about some of the stronger investigative leads in books we know: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, (dare I say? maybe not..) Alex Cross. They definitely weren’t taking what was happening to them lying down. They were active, they were geniuses, they were motivated. To put it in the simplest terms: they did things. Awesome things.
Look back at your manuscript. Is your character simply getting swept along by the events around him/her? Are they out of their depth for a little bit too long before doing something about it? This doesn’t fully apply to every type of book – but I think it’s important to remember no matter what you’re writing. Characters should act, not react. The difference (which I mentioned earlier) is that one comes from internal resolve, while the other is a response to external events. The latter is impossible to avoid, and most books actually need and benefit from it, but without the former your character and your story will never be the strongest they can be.