Who Are These People – Making Characters Come Alive, Part 4

A corollary to creating characters with objectives or desires is making those characters take action to accomplish those goals.

This past week, agent Rachelle Gardner wrote an excellent article on this subject, “Is Your MC Proactive or Reactive?” Rachelle stated her key point succinctly:

    Your MC [main character] must be proactive and make the story happen.

Surprisingly, some of the commenters seemed to miss that bottom line, camping instead on the issue of passive characters versus strong, type-A take-charge ones.

I suggest a passive character can be a main character, but he would still need to make the story happen.

Let’s say a character wants nothing more than to be left alone. So far so good, because the person has a driving desire. But if the character does nothing to achieve this goal, then the story lacks cohesion, and readers will tire watching a character who wants something she is unwilling to try to achieve.

Instead, if the passive character who wants to be left alone takes steps to duck and dodge extra responsibility, the reader will become engaged with the attempt, perhaps even hoping the MC fails, for his or her own good.

A couple old detective TV shows come to mind to illustrate this point. Jim Rockford in the Rockford Files often seemed more interested in not taking a case for one reason or the other than in accommodating would-be clients. Viewers, of course, knew he was right, that the case would be trouble. When at last his maneuvers or arguments inevitably failed, he, the reluctant hero, proceeded to overcome the problems and save the day.

Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I., was a near carbon copy of Jim Rockford (except he had the added benefit of living on an estate in Hawaii! 😀 )

The point is, reluctant heroes may appear passive, but they are still fueled by desires, and they act in order to accomplish those desires, even though the actions may take the form of avoidance. Magnum, for example, often pulled humorous shenanigans to avoid doing what estate manager Higgins had specified.

One more important point. A character’s initial desire will undoubtedly change as the story unfolds and the the inciting incident occurs. Magnum didn’t want to take a certain case and tried to get out of it, but once involved, his goal shifted to defeating the bad guy or uncovering the truth or rescuing the helpless girl, child, hard-up Marine buddy, or whoever.

In the opening of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett wants nothing more than to entice Ashley to abandon Melanie and court Scarlett instead. Then the Civil War breaks out, and things change.

Granted, it takes nearly a thousand pages before Scarlett realizes she didn’t really want Ashley, but in the meantime, she formulates a lot of other goals that spur her actions, one after the other.

So here’s the bottom line in this article: characters must act to accomplish their goals. Give your main character a goal on page one, and put him to work to try to accomplish it.


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