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On "Proactive" versus "Reactive" Proagonists

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ireth, May 23, 2016.

  1. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    On "Proactive" versus "Reactive" Protagonists

    I've gotten a fair bit of flak around the interwebs concerning the heroine of my novel Winter's Queen. People say I should make her more proactive, that she is too reactive to the actions of the villain. All because she does not seek adventure (i.e. the plot) out for herself, and is instead drawn into it by the villain.

    To which I say, what's wrong with that? Isn't every action a reaction to something else, all the way back to the first Action that began everything (i.e. Creation, whether by divine will or the Big Bang, etc.)?

    The inciting incident of my story, in which the villain kidnaps the heroine with the intent of marrying her, is not a proactive decision on the part of the villain, but a reaction to three thousand years of abuse and neglect culminating in a revenge plot against his father. And everything the heroine does throughout the story is a reaction to what the villain does, which creates further reactions from him, and so on. Can characters ever be completely proactive?

    Take LOTR for example. Yes, Frodo does decide to take on the burden of the Ring in hopes of destroying it, but only after spending the first half of the book being hunted by Ringwraiths and trying to get to a safe place (Rivendell). This is all in reaction to Sauron starting to regain his power and seeking out the Ring, and Bilbo leaving the Ring with Frodo in the first place. And a good chunk of THAT is a reaction to a certain chapter in The Hobbit. And so on, and so forth, all the way back to the Music of the Ainur that created the World.

    Harry Potter is another example of this. Harry doesn't one day suddenly decide to be a wizard all on his own; he's introduced to the idea that he is one by Hagrid, who also tells him where to go to get to Hogwarts. I've heard that the creation of Dumbledore's Army in book 5 is a "proactive" moment on Harry's part, but honestly it just strikes me as another reaction to Umbridge -- albeit one that moves in a different direction and with more magnitude than others before.

    I'm not sure if I'm overthinking or underthinking this. Are so-called "reactive" protagonists really that bad?
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2016
  2. I have not read your book. But what I can say is that while it's true all of those are reactions to something when they actually take up the mantle they are in constant motion and trying to accomplish the goal. The bad guy's actions are reactions to that initial decision. So, sending Uruks to snatch Frodo at the end of Fellowship is a reaction to Frodo's actions of taking the Ring to Rivendell. Harry is very reactionary, but he is still pretty proactive when he needs to be like at the end of the first book. He says, "Aw Hell no. I ain't lettin' Snape get that stone."

    To put this a bit more clearly than this rambling post, I have a character, Garren. His village gets attacked by a douche bag noble. He reacts to this attack by running and hiding. But after that initial reaction, he takes the initiative to get revenge on the attacker and on the person that made the attack possible. So after the initial problem that the he had to react to he became proactive and took the fight to the nobleman. That's how I see it.
     
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    The problem with thinking that everything is ultimately a reaction to events is that it makes the idea of "protagging" meaningless.

    One way of separating them is to ask whether the action taken by a character springs from a motivation that is his own. So for instance, yes Harry Potter is the least proactive of the three kids; but, he grows more proactive toward the end of the series. Instead of waiting for Voldemort and the Deatheaters to do something else to him, to his friends, to his school, he decides to avoid returning to Hogwarts in the final year and to search for the horcruxes. His own motivation: Get ahead in the fight, destroy Voldemort. Yes, Voldemort has to exist first, has to present a danger. But a reactive action would have been: Go back to Hogwarts for the final year, go about business as usual, wait for Voldemort to attack and then react to that. Put another way, there's no direct action by Voldemort that made Harry choose to skip school and hunt the horcruxes.

    So looking at the motivation and from which spring the motivation...springs, is a good way to separate reactivity vs proactivity.

    If I decide to take an umbrella to work because there's a 40% chance of precipitation, this is proactive even if I am reacting to that percent chance. But if I don't grab an umbrella until I see that it's already raining outside, that's reactive.

    Sometimes in a story, your characters will naturally be reactive, especially since villains begin hidden and the characters don't discover them until those villains first act. One way you can still amp up the proactivity of your characters in those early stages is to give them something else to be proactive about. A personal pursuit, even if it's not directly related to the plot. (I.e., going about their daily business, pursuits, until the villain or circumstances force them to react.)
     
  4. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    *nod* I see what you're both saying. So in theory, my heroine could be said to be proactive when she tries to flee the villain's castle, regardless of the fact that she fails and has to keep trying again. Or even earlier, when she tries to get the king on her side (and fails again, unfortunately). That makes me feel a bit better about my story, at least. :)
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2016
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    Yep, I think that choosing to escape and taking measures to enable escape would be proactive. Making the decision to sway the king to her side would also be proactive.

    There could be a problem if she gives up too easily when failing any given endeavor, or maybe if she doesn't think too far ahead and/or isn't vey clever with her attempts, or doesn't attempt very much, and if escape is her only goal. Readers like to feel that MCs aren't just going through the motions but can plot and plan and maybe have a larger goal than mere escape.
     
  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    This is what might concern me as a reader. Not everything the protagonist does should be a reaction.

    Yes, you're protagonist is going to start off reactive. After all, the antagonist is usually the driver of the story, or the reason the protagonist is forced to a point of no return. However, somewhere along the line (the actual point depending on your story's structure) the protagonist must become proactive in their fight against the antagonist.

    Too much reaction, with little to no proactive behavior, reads like constant victimhood & makes for a weak protagonist that no reader wants to be.
     
  7. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Good to note. She doesn't give up on anything for long, until her circumstances get so dire that she literally has no way of saving herself and is helped by her friends -- and this reinforces the running theme throughout the novel of trusting in others/working as a team being better than trying to tackle everything oneself. She does take time to plot and plan, which also allows her time to make the friends who become so vital to her final escape. Her resistance of the villain starts out small, but builds as the novel progresses.

    Escape is her main goal, admittedly, because she knows better than to try and "fix" the villain with the power of love or anything like that. She's also 99% certain her family is looking for her in Faerie (this increases to 100% when she meets a Fae whom her family recently had an encounter with and is able to tell the MC about them), and escaping the villain's castle will theoretically allow her to go out looking for them too. As for the villain's murderous plot, it's revealed too late in the story for the MC to have much chance in being proactive about that, on top of that being about the time she loses all hope of escape, but she does what she can in the climax.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    Is there anyone else in the castle she could help in the meantime? Like a servant being mistreated? Her situation of being imprisoned might limit her chances to protag, but if you give her something else like that, you can show her still being proactive about something beyond escape.
     
    Ireth likes this.
  9. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    You're actually not the first person to present that as an idea. ^^ This is giving me some new thoughts.

    I do have a servant character, Eira, whom the MC befriends after Eira is assigned to the MC as a personal maidservant, and I've been trying to hash out her situation. My beta reader suggested I make Eira the Queen's maidservant, who is only serving the MC while the Queen is away on business and absent from the story (mainly because the King thought it would make the MC's princess life easier if she were treated like one before the wedding). But that doesn't seem like the sort of situation that would allow for mistreatment, especially since both the King and Queen are perfectly reasonable authority figures, even if their views on their son's marriage don't really align with the MC's.

    Another option lies with a guard, Loegaire, whom the MC befriends; he has a deep-seated grudge against the villain for betraying him and his ex-lover, and causing the King (who was falsely informed about the situation) to destroy Loegaire's greatest chance at attaining his fondest ambition, fatherhood. The MC learns of Loegaire's situation from his ex-lover, who helps the MC as a means of avenging the villain's betrayal. I could have the MC attempt to reason with the King that the curse was the wrong thing to do and that he should rescind it.

    This is problematic in that the MC doesn't have time to sit down and talk with the King after the first chat they have, during which the MC tries and fails to sway the King to her side by saying she and the villain aren't a match for each other. That's when her escape attempts are in full swing. On the other hand, they DO have time to talk after the villain is dealt with, and Loegaire is involved in that anyway... I could easily have the MC bring it up then.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I try to believe my readers. They may not be saying it the right way, or in a way that makes sense to me, but if I start hearing a criticism from multiple readers, I have to think there is something to which they are responding.

    Getting clarification can be difficult to impossible. Have you tried follow-up questions? Without seeing either the mss or the critiques, it's hard to be helpful, so I'm shooting in the dark here. Duck!

    Can they give an example of a scene that rings false because the MC is reacting more than acting?
    Can they say what they'd rather see more of? Less of?
    Can they offer an alternative to a scene?

    I'll offer one other item, just for you to chew on. I learned this in grad school; it is a simple change of pronouns. When I would turn in a paper and the professor would criticize it, I would defend my argument, my evidence, my style. Then one prof suggested that once I turned in the paper I regard it no longer as "my" paper but as "the" paper. Put myself on the same side of the desk as the prof. In other words, judge it the same way I would judge any other scholarly article.

    It isn't easy. But by pulling out the personal pronoun, even when thinking to myself, it helped me be more objective. What I found was that being dispassionate was not the same as being without passion; it simply meant I approached my writing the same way my readers would. I began to become another critic rather than being the defender. Be more ruthless than your committee, or so said my dissertation adviser.

    Maybe it's just a habit now, but I like think it helps me with creative writing as well.
     
    Ireth likes this.
  11. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

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    Hey Ireth,

    I think it boils down to where the character makes the choice to be the hero of their own story. That's what's always engaging is that moment where Frodo chooses to take the One Ring from Rivendell to Mordor, where Neo chooses the red pill over the blue pill. They are mainly passive and/or reactive up till this point, and when they embark on the hero's journey they begin to transform. That transformation in whatever form it takes is the heart of the story. That initial choice to move forward with intention is when they become proactive (and will still of course react to things they come across) but if they never make that choice they never change and fail to be interesting as a hero. As long as your character is on that journey she can react or act in any way that's appropriate.
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2016
  12. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    Well usually something bad happens that the hero ends up reacting to. I guess you mean if something bad were to happen that the hero would decide to put a plan into action before that takes place? If so wouldn't you need some precedent to show that their decision to act is warranted?
     
  13. glutton

    glutton Inkling

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    Maybe it could be changed so her main goal becomes to expose the villain and bring him to justice instead of just escape?

    An MC who spends most of the story captured and hoping for rescue even at the end does seem a bit too victim-y to be appealing...

    Maybe instead of ending up with 'no way' to escape... she escapes when she hurts the villain as you mentioned, but decides to go back with the help of her friends to stop him for good.
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2016
  14. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    Helping a mistreated servant was only one of a type of structure that could help to keep the imprisoned MC proactive in the eyes of the reader.

    There are other options. I think the point is to give her milieu (castle, side characters, etc.) something about which she can feel a need to act–beyond making it merely a situation to escape, or having escape be her only motivation. Perhaps there's a secret door or a level of the castle that is out of bounds for her, so she feels the need to go exploring. (This is a little Harry Potterish.) Maybe two side characters are in a dispute, and she has a reason to either smooth things out between them or exacerbate their antagonism and must go about doing so with subtlety.

    Even if escape is always on her mind, you could have her act to prepare the stage for her escape, perhaps prepare things so that when her friends arrive to rescue her they'll have an easier time of it. Or maybe she wants to try to get a message out to them or trick/convince someone else in the castle to go out looking for them.
     
  15. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    *waves at Phin* Hey, long time no see!

    The MC makes the decision to be proactive basically as soon as she realizes what her situation is in chapter 3 or so; it just takes a little while for her escape plan to be put in motion. In the meantime, she has smaller fights against the villain and his magic.

    @glutton: The MC does NOT simply hope for rescue; most of her arc is dedicated to escape attempts, and the rest is dedicated to laying aside her lifetime of prejudice against the Fae and befriending some of them, which allows them opportunity to help her with the aforementioned escape attempts. She is by no means a damsel in distress sitting prettily in a tower; she's one who hits the villain in the face and stuns him before he even kidnaps her, and maims him so he can't take the throne at the end of the story, as well as other actions in between.

    I have considered making the murder plot come to light sooner, but that would require rewriting the majority of the story from scratch, which is more than I'm willing to do at this point. I've spent more than five years developing this story to be the way it is, and I want to put it out in the world sooner, not later. I might keep that idea and use it for a fanfic, though.

    @FifthView: Ariel does in fact have a friend who goes out looking for her family in Faerie, though the friend volunteers of her own free will rather than being asked. The friend in question is the villain's sister, who sees the opportunity to aid the MC as an act of vengeance against her brother for something he did years ago. (Fae are particular about repaying debts, whether for good or ill.)
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2016
  16. glutton

    glutton Inkling

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    It sounds like her maiming the villain is pretty late in the story though, if the murder plot comes to light around that point and she decides to stop it would that really require the majority of it to be rewritten?
     
  17. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    No, since that's pretty much exactly how it goes. She maims him not a minute after she realizes what his plans are, though it comes across as an act of self-defense, since by that point he's gone off the deep end and is trying to strangle her. I thought you were talking about having the murder plot come up much sooner. And now I'm confused.
     
  18. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

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    *wave back*

    Yes it's been a long time since I've come to MS. Life has been pretty chaotic for a while - but I'm still writing!

    Don't get too muddled Ireth and trust your story-teller's instincts. It doesn't sound to me like you have too much of an issue with your MC being too passive.

    This thread makes me think of Sansa Stark who is very much a victim-type character who just gets used and abused without doing anything about it. I think she's about to make her choice to fight back which is cool - but up until now she's not nearly as interesting a character as Jon Snow who's been nothing but proactive.
     
    Ireth likes this.
  19. glutton

    glutton Inkling

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    No I was just suggesting that after she maims him, maybe she escapes but then decides to come back to save the king and needs her friends' help to do it, which would keep the 'requiring teamwork' theme while making her more proactive as her goal shifts from 'escape' to 'stop the villain'.
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2016
  20. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Coming back to save the king isn't necessary, because the king hunts her down himself when she escapes (and the villain follows in secret). And yes, she does need her friends' help to do it. :)
     
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