#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Writing Active Characters

Hi, everyone!

For this Author Toolbox Blog Hop post, I’m going to expand on a second reason why submissions are rejected based on an earlier post. For those of you visiting for the first time, this is all based on my experience as an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing.

While last month I focused on writing a strong first chapter, this time I’m going to talk about writing active characters.  One of the most common things I note in my reader reports on why I’m passing is that the characters didn’t have strong external goals.

Your main character needs an active role in the story. This means they make things happen, and don’t just have things happen to them. When you have your main character thrown from one situation to another and then just record their reaction, you have a reactive character. The problem with this is the reader has to wait for something to happen to the MC to see their reaction. But if the readers don’t know what’s coming, then they don’t know what to look forward to, and this is when they become disinterested (and same with agents/editors).

To make sure the MC has an active role, you need to give them clear and strong external goals. Something they’re consistently working toward. In doing so, the MC is pushing the plot forward, instead of being pushed around by the plot.

Now, does this mean that the MC has to be perfect in working toward that goal? Not at all. Your characters should be taking action and making decisions, but it doesn’t always need to be the right one. They make mistakes. Their plans will fail, and they’ll have to start over. They’ll have to face obstacle after obstacle. There still needs to be conflict. The MC shouldn’t go from point A to point B without at least a bump in the road.

It’s important to ask about every character “What do they want? What do they desperately need to achieve?” There needs to be an answer to this, and it needs to be clear and significant. There should be consequences to the MC not achieving their goal. If the character goals are not clearly defined (or are non-existent) then you run the risk of your work being low-concept.

Briefly put, you want your characters to:

  • Have strong/clear external goals.
  • Be working toward those goals.
  • Take action and make decisions (even if they aren’t always the rights ones).
  • Push the plot forward, and not just be pushed around by the plot.

Thanks for reading.

P.S Just a quick note that since Pitch Wars is coming up, I’m offering 10% off MS critiques, and I’ve also put up a Pitch Wars package 🙂

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38 thoughts on “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Writing Active Characters

  1. lyndleloo says:

    These are such great tips! One of the things I really worried about when I was writing my first draft was whether my MC actually had any agency. I’d come up with this wonderful plot with all these different scenes, and I suddenly worried I hadn’t made sure that everything that happened was because of my MCs actions. But it’s OK that not EVERYTHING happens because she wants it, she still has a goal and tries to achieve it, even if she doesn’t necessarily succeed…. well, not until the very end, anyway, and by then she’s changed her mind (spoiler! Lol) 🙂

    Like

  2. E.M.A. Timar says:

    This post is informative, concise, and actionable- the best kind of post. Having an active character is so important and you have provided a great breakdown to ensure that. Thanks.
    *starts flipping through her MS to make sure her character meets all the requirements*

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Steven Capps says:

    Awesome post! I’m an Associate Editor over at PodCastle and I see this problem quite a bit in the slush pile. We publish short stories so it is imperative to have the motivation clear early on.

    Like

  4. raimeygallant says:

    Super helpful post. Your posts are like candy for me. I want more! I have spent the last half hour on a detour through Brenda Drake’s website but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Are you a mentor this year?

    Like

    • Hoda says:

      Aw, thanks, Raimey! I’m so glad it was helpful 🙂 I’m not a mentor this year, but I’ll apply to be one next year – so we’ll see! Thanks again for the kind words ❤

      Like

  5. Vanessa says:

    This is extremely valuable advice. Honestly, every character in a story should have some sort of motivation. Though, I do love throwing in one twist or conflict that my MC had no active part in. I love making my MC react in a way that might end up changing the end goal. It doesn’t always work that way and sometimes I have to scrap it, but it has made a few of my short stories more interesting.

    Like

    • Hoda says:

      I’m so glad it helped! I completely agree with you. It’s definitely fun to throw an unexpected twist at the MC – that’s where the conflict comes in! They’re definitely going to be reactive at points.

      Like

  6. awshannonauthor says:

    Good things to think about as I revise my work and plan the next. I think the most frustrating part of writing is finishing a ms and realizing you need to fix something big. LOL
    I’ll definitely be keeping these ideas in my head as I read through my ms and improve it.

    Like

  7. M.L. Keller says:

    You’ve really nailed the problem I see in so many manuscripts. The main character is just sitting in a chair thinking thoughts. (usually worldbuilding) I just want to scream at them to get up and do something. lol

    Liked by 1 person

  8. jrcreaden says:

    This is a perfect summary of character agency–thanks! 🙂 One thing that occurs to me, often repeated on Writing Excuses, is how important that try/fail cycle is–both for the character’s agency and the reader’s investment into the character. We need to see how they deal with their struggles!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kristina Stanley says:

    I love this post. I wrote something similar this week. 🙂

    For each scene in my draft, I ask:
    What is the POV goal for the scene?
    How does the goal relate to the plot?
    What or who is working against the POV goal?
    What happens if your POV doesn’t achieve the goal?
    How does scene affect your POV character?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. lupa08 says:

    Very sage advice! And concise too. It made me pause and think about the current MS I’m writing where the protagonist is initially seen as someone being molded (almost martyr-like) until she comes to a point where she needs to take charge and goes rogue. Interesting how today’s blog-hopping has left me with fresh perspectives on my own work 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Caroliena Cabada says:

    I’m taking a writing class right now, and the first class was on creating a compelling character. The character has to have some motivation, some goal they’re striving for, and it can be as simple as “They get from point A to point B.” The story should then emerge from this goal. You capture this idea very succinctly in this post. Kudos!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dianna Gunn says:

    I think the trend towards reactive characters in a lot of writing stems from the amount of time a lot of writers spend playing RPGs, where the plots are usually inherently reactive. Unfortunately that approach doesn’t work so well on the page.

    Liked by 1 person

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