Character Development: Passive Protagonists

Character development is one of my favorite topics to talk about with writers. Great characters can make a permanent imprint on their readers, from protagonists like Anne Shirley, Charlotte Doyle, or Lyra Belacqua to antagonists like Josie Pye, Captain Jaggery, or Mrs. Coulter. In my next few letters, I’ll be touching on different areas of character development.

One of the most common revision areas I see in manuscripts is passive protagonists. These are characters who don’t actively influence the plot of their story, whether over the book as a whole or within certain sections. Passive protagonists’ actions are often responses to others’ actions or to coincidences. This reactive stance can make the story read as if it is happening to the protagonist, rather than allowing the protagonist to drive the plot forward via their decisions and actions.

How do you know if you have a passive protagonist? First, identify your protagonist’s goals and needs. Active characters generally have internal needs as well as external goals.

Characters’ internal needs can be subtle and usually relate to their emotions, relationships, and sense of self. A character might be consciously or unconsciously seeking validation, attention, confidence, acceptance, love, forgiveness, trust, etc. These needs are sometimes referred to as the protagonist’s wound—a past hurt or trauma that they are seeking to heal over the course of their story. Protagonists’ needs provide opportunities to showcase their internal growth, whether that is learning to be proud of who they are, learning to trust someone else, or learning to forgive.

Characters’ external goals are typically more explicit and plot-related than their internal needs. For instance, a character might want to travel to Paris or solve a mystery or win an art contest.

A character’s internal needs and external goals don’t need to be perfectly balanced; depending on the story, one may be much more prominent. Still, in many cases a book’s most satisfying scenes relate to a character’s internal needs as well as their external goals, often in unexpected ways—such as meeting a new friend while trying to solve a mystery, losing an art contest yet gaining confidence, or falling in love on a trip to Paris.

After identifying your protagonists’ goals and needs, consider the obstacles—circumstances, people, rules, expectations, etc.—that are standing in their way. Obstacles between characters and their desires are necessary to create conflict.

Next, consider how your protagonist can proactively work to overcome these obstacles. How can they choose to act, rather than waiting for fate to take its course or simply reacting to others? How might your protagonist’s decisions be influenced and heightened by what is at stake? What do they fear will happen if they don’t act or fail to reach their goals? What might they lose? How might they or the ones they love suffer? What does your character see as the worst-case scenario?

Desire, obstacles, and action all play an important role in creating proactive characters. If protagonists don’t have clear desires or don’t act on them, it can be hard for readers to remain fully immersed in a story and invested in the outcome. Similarly, if protagonists have goals but easily reach them—or only reach them because of luck or the actions of others—their achievements aren’t likely to feel truly satisfying. And if protagonists take action but don’t have clear goals, their actions can seem aimless rather than purposeful.

My favorite revision tool, the reverse outline, is another way to track whether a protagonist is passive or proactive. For each scene in your book, identify the ways in which your protagonist is actively working to reach their goals and overcome the obstacles in their path. If your protagonist doesn’t face many challenges or is mainly reacting to the actions of others, that might be the focus of your next revision.

Your Editor Friend,


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