A Study of Proactive Characters
There’s a rule that your main POV character must move from reactive to proactive. Some rules are made to be broken.
What is a proactive character?
Proactive characters take action into their own hands. The proactive character doesn’t wait for others to create a solution, he is involved in creating his own solutions. They make decisions about their situation, maybe come to a fork in the road, maybe make a bad decision – but they don’t wait around for others to fix things. These characters are more interesting to read about, and because the reader is along for the decision-making process they’re invested in the character.
But not always. This has got me thinking. Does your POV character HAVE to be proactive to have a great story? Some rules are made to be broken.
Case Study #1: Buffy
(of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
) was this bada$$ character who didn’t take junk from anybody including Spike. Everywhere she went, she influenced the action around her. Cue the ‘normal’ scene with Buffy at school or waking up, and then BAM – a vampire appears out of nowhere and knocks her flat. She’s forced to react to a situation outside of her control or influence. This is when Buffy goes all – ‘that vamp’s so dead,’ and marches out of the library wooden stake in hand. She makes a decision, good or bad, and acts on it – and her action moves the story forward. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Spike had to always kidnap Buffy and Angel rescued her. Yawn. What kind of vampire slayer would that make?
Case Study #2: Bella Swan
) Bella is reactive. Stuff happens to Bella and she waits for Edward to rescue her throughout almost the entire series. She’s almost smushed by a truck in an icy school parking lot – Edward rescues her. She’s a social outcast who’s never had a boyfriend – Edward, the guy every girl wants, decides to date her. She’s targeted by vamps who want to eat her – Edward whisks her away to safety. It’s not until the second half of the 4th book that Bella becomes proactive - through Alice's prodding and guidance.
If you’re stuck in a vamp-infested cellar in an all-out smackdown – who do you want with you? Bella or Buffy? Point made. However - the fact that Bella is a reactive POV character hasn't tanked the series - quite the opposite.
Case Study #3: Edward Cullen
) Edward is reactive. He's not a POV character, but it's his decisions that influence the action in the story. He saves Bella. He leaves. He returns. He decides to date Bella. He discovers the imminent threat to Bella's life and decides how they'll react. He kills James and Victoria (the bad vampires trying to eat Bella). He sucks out the venom. He leaves again. He goes to the Volturi... On and on this is what happens throughout all 4 books. Readers are never in Edward's head, but who have readers connected with? Edward. Interesting.... (Jacob is also proactive.)
Case Study #4: Sarah Connors
(of Terminator 2
fame). Sarah Connors is proactive. I haven’t seen the first Terminator, but in #2 she shares the main POV character slot with her son John. This movie is about John –John's decisions, John's actions, John’s future. But Sarah narrates the story, and it's Sarah who makes most of the action-taking decisions. Sarah got a spin-off TV series. We identified with Sarah.
Case Study #5: Luke and Anakin Skywalker
(of Star Wars
). If you watch all 6 movies it becomes clear the whole Star Wars
series (as we've seen it) is really about ‘the chosen one’ Anakin Skywalker, not Luke. Everyone loves Luke. Luke runs back to save his aunt and uncle, he decides to follow Obi-Wan into unknown danger, he trains to be a Jedi with Yoda, he rescues Chewie and Leia and Hans, he faces his fears and not only defeats Darth Vader but redeems him as well. He creates his own solutions. But Anakin? He’s found. He’s trained. He follows Obi-Wan. He does what he’s told – he complains, he cops an attitude – but he still does what he’s told by everyone
: the Emperor, Padme, the Jedi Council… He reacts. Anakin has one real proactive moment near the end of the 6th
Who Do You Care About?
Regardless of who the main POV characters are, which characters sell those stories to readers? Are you on Team Bella?
You must have at least one proactive character. I think the reason for the rule that your main POV character must be proactive is that this is the character the audience will likely identify with. Bella did not sell the Twilight series to readers - Edward and Jacob did. Anakin did not sell the Star Wars series to people - it was Luke. Who sells the Buffy series? Buffy. It's easier to sell a Buffy type story, than a Twilight type story. Doesn't mean it can't happen, or work well - but when the odds are already stacked against you in the publishing world....
Food for thought.
Camy Tang has a really great article
on proactive characters if you want to read more on the topic.
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