Writing Lesson 3.3-Is Your Protagonist Too Passive?

Protagonists, by story-telling nature, are the ones who are in a dilemma.

Sometimes that means they’ve been put upon, taken advantage of, hurt, haunted, or chased after. But occasionally, when we write about their situations, we start to accidentally create such a passive character that we’re really the only ones who are excited about what is happening to them. Others might find them to be, um… well… boring. It’s simply too hard for a reader to establish a long-term, committed relationship with a character who is nothing but a victim.

The key to creating a non-passive character doesn’t mean doing away with the problems they’re faced with. It simply means giving them the power to act on what is happening.

When your main character faces The Big Trouble, whatever it is, that is not the time to have them go off and wallow in self-pity — not for more than a few moments anyway. That is the time to make them do something.  In fact, whenever possible, avoid things happening to the character. Instead, have the character act as the catalyst for what happens next. The character’s response to their crisis should come in some physical as well as emotional way whenever possible. Did they get bad news? Have them act out on it. Have them rage, cry, run, write a letter, plot revenge, spy — something.

Did one character just see his best friend wounded in battle? What is he going to do next because of that? Did another just overhear her parents speaking about a possible divorce? What is her reaction? What will these characters do that will cause their stories to spin forward and lead to even deeper conflict?

The point of creating non-passive characters is to intensify possibilities for conflict while causing readers to engage with their personalities — to care about them.


  • Think about the latest dilemma your character has stumbled into. What can he or she do next to try to get themselves out of it, only to make matters worse?
About Naomi Musch

Naomi Musch is the author of the inspirational novel The Casket Girl, a romantic adventure of the French and Indian War. She and husband Jeff enjoy epic adventures in the northwoods with their five young adults.

Read more about Naomi.

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