There's a lot of discussion in the writing world right now about Strong Female Characters. (A few great PubCrawl posts on this subject include this one from Erin and this one from JJ.) These discussions have started me thinking about Strong Characters in general, regardless of gender, age, or abilities. I've been thinking a lot about the concept of strength and wondering what attributes define a strong character.
Please excuse this sweeping generalization, but I would argue that a strong character is one who is Active.
Now by active, I don’t (necessarily) mean the character is running around kicking butt (though that's always an option.) I mean that the character is acting to create solutions to his or her problems. The story unspools because of the choices made by the character.
Of course, all stories have conflict. Forces push against my characters, and sometimes before they can get their bearings, another force pushes hard against them again. Sometimes I worry that my characters could become rudderless boats tossed around by the story’s conflict. When I fear this could happen (or see that it actually is happening) I make sure my characters are staying active and avoiding two tempting traps:
The trap of becoming a Passive Character.
I’ve written these types of characters before—the ones whose hands are tied, the ones who are biding their time for just the right moment. And they have dragged the story down. I have slogged through what I had hoped would feel like anxious and tense waiting only to discover that waiting is (often) boringly inactive. Even a character whose hands are tied (literally, figuratively, or both,) can be active. He can be planning, watching, preparing his body and mind for the chance to escape. She can have a plan and be putting it into motion, no matter how lame or pointless that plan might be. Maybe the plan is only one step out of a zillion steps to come—maybe it’s nothing more than, “Draw a deep breath of air through the cracks in the walls of my cell,” but it’s a plan. It’s action. There can be waiting, but there can’t be passive waiting.
The trap of becoming an (overly) Reactive Character.
This advice can be confusing, because most stories start with an inciting incident that upsets the status quo of the main character’s life. Whatever action my character takes at that point is, at least to an extent, a reaction to the inciting incident. But that doesn’t mean that my character gets a free pass to fall into a spiraling pattern of reaction. He needs to decide how he’s going to respond to the conflict raining down on him, and his responses should include actions, not just a series of reactions. When conflict pushes against my characters, they have choices. They can push back, or they can fall down. Or they can run away and hide where the pushing can’t reach them anymore. (I mean, that’s only normal, right?) It’s okay if my characters react to the plot with fear or doubt that makes them crawl into a hole for the sake of self-preservation. They just can’t stay in the hole. They can react, but they also have to act. They need to make a difference in the story, and not just let the story make a difference in them.
How do you feel about active, passive, and reactive characters? Do you think it’s important for characters to be active? Please share your thoughts in the comments!