Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

Active and Reactive Decisions

“Is it better for your main character to make decisions in order to move the story forward or allow things to happen to him/her or a mix of both? Or something different entirely? I’m just frustrated because the protagonist in my current project has had things happen instead of making choices and I’m stuck on how to move forward.”

This question was posted on the writing forum by a new member a couple of months ago. I didn’t respond then because I was immediately inspired to write a blog post on the topic. And then life happened. Late is better than never, right?

My short answer to this question is that main characters (MCs) should be making decisions that affect the course of the story. It doesn’t have to be all the time. Watching someone struggle against forces beyond their control is fun, but readers do tend to enjoy characters who make their desires known and (at least attempt to) exert their will over their circumstances.

However, real life teaches us that wills can be thwarted. You know the moment in a wedding where the minister asks all those who object to the marriage to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” Often times in the movies, someone objects and thus, the wedding is canceled or the bride/groom immediately marries someone other than their fiancé. Realistically, though, the objector would sooner be escorted out of the church by security than stop the ceremony cold.

But suppose the objector was the MC in a story, and you the reader have known this person long enough to agree with their objection. Which would you prefer that he do – sit in his chair and say nothing, or stand up and say something? I’m assuming that most of you chose the latter. Even if he doesn’t get his way, the audience can at least applaud him for his courage.

The real question I want to ask this new member is in what way has the MC “had things happen?” Is he being strung along a series of unfortunate events without a chance to react to what’s going on? Or is he struggling against forces beyond his control? If it’s the former, then there is some cause for concern. But if it’s the latter, then I don’t see much of a problem. The MC is already expressing his will through his opposition and struggle.

When writers talk about MCs making decisions which affect the plot and move the story forward, it’s the kind of decision at the center of my wedding example – a conscious, premeditated decision – or what I like to call an active decision. But there is another category of decisions which aren’t as obvious but can have just as much impact on the story. These are the unconscious, spur-of-the-moment, reactive decisions.

Picture this: a baker is captured by pirates because they believe he has information on the whereabouts of a massive treasure hoard. But the pirates are mistaken – the baker doesn’t know anything about this treasure. Seeing that the baker is useless, the captain orders his crew to kill the baker. The pirates draw their swords and close in. Panicking, the baker shouts, “Wait! Stop! I’ll make a deal!”

The captain tells his men to wait. “What kind of deal?” he asks the baker.

The baker offers to stay on board the ship and cook for all of them in exchange for his life. The captain likes this offer and accepts. “No soggy biscuits tonight, boys!”

Would the baker have made the same deal with the pirates had his life not been threatened? Maybe. Maybe not. But one can safely assume that his survival instincts were very influential in this scene. In this case, the baker’s last desperate attempt to save his life paid off, but now he’s dragged into an adventure he never planned on joining.

A story doesn’t require that the MC be in the driver’s seat all the time, but they do need chances to react to what’s going on and make their desires and opinions known.

If you’re concerned that your MC is too passive, look closer for any reactive decisions they have made. If they’re making enough of them, then stop fretting. Your MC isn’t as big a pushover as you fear. Giving them an opportunity to make an active decision would be nice and will go a long way toward settling your anxieties.

If you aren’t seeing reactive decisions from your MC, then it’s a sign that you should slow down and give your MC enough time to react. Your readers will also appreciate the breather.

What examples of active and reactive decisions have you seen? In your own writing, do your MCs tend to make more active or reactive decisions? Please share in the comments.

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