(Note: I just realized this post has been sitting in my drafts folder since September, so that’s why I’m posting it today!)
My earliest attempted novels were, I’ll be honest, boring. And at the time, I didn’t understand why. My concepts were interesting! My characters had backstories and exciting things happened to them!
Ay, there’s the rub. Exciting things happened TO THEM. The characters themselves… well, they didn’t much, aside from reacting to those things. Something dangerous appeared, they’d fight or run away, then wander off until another exciting thing happened to them. The characters weren’t driving the plot. The plot was driving them around. They were passengers. And it’s just not as interesting to read about a character being taken for a ride as it is to read about a character who grabs the steering wheel and charts a new course.
I knew, in theory, that readers liked active characters, but not all of my characters were “active” in the sense of butt-kicking, strong, confident, go-getters, so how could they be expected to make everything happen?
Because character agency, not sword-slinging, makes the difference between active or passive characters. An “active” character doesn’t have to be a sword-slinging badass, but they do have to make choices that lead to what happens next. An inciting incident is often described as the event that kicks off a story, but that’s only because it spurs the main character to take some sort of action, to make a choice. For example, most people would correctly say that the inciting incident in The Hunger Games is when Katniss’s sister is chosen, but the STORY really begins the moment Katniss decides to take her place.
Agency is what makes characters compelling. In a way, they almost need to write their own story. Well, obviously, you write it, but it should feel like the characters are the ones making the story happen.
As I discussed in THIS POST , I’m a pantser, so I usually write a synopsis after I finish a first draft. There’s usually a lot of “and then X shows up/and then X happens” so I zoom in to examine how I’ve connected each plot point. (Eternal recommendation: Watch SouthPark writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker talk about “but/therefore” HERE) If most of my connective sentences start with “And then,” that’s a red flag, warning that I may have a series of events rather than a story. When I ask myself, “What did my MC do that led to these plot points?” and the answer is, “she didn’t, stuff just happened,” then I have structural work to do.
For example, in my 2017 Pitchwars book, the main character was originally asked to join her mother at her research laboratory for the summer. While there, my MC accidentally stumbled across a secret, and this is the big turning point of the story.
In the final draft, my MC jeopardizes her college plans by asking dangerous questions, then tries to get her life back on track by offering to join her mother for the summer to prove she can be responsible and follow the rules. Then, of course, the first time she notices something mysterious, she chooses to poke around even though she knows she should walk away.
It sounds like a relatively minor change, but in the later version, the character’s hands are on the wheel, and when she goes off a cliff, it’s mostly her own fault. Really, that’s what readers crave. They want the character to take them on a ride, rather than watching the character be taken for a ride.
Obviously, outside forces still exist, and plot points often occur because someone or something else acts on the character, but whenever possible, ask yourself how your character can exacerbate the problem, or react to it in a way that causes the next problem. If you can get your readers to sound like horror-movie viewers, yelling “Nooo! Don’t open that door!” then you’re on the right track.