Go Ahead – Prove Me Wrong!

On Friday, in his This Week in Publishing post, Nathan Bransford gave a nod to my post last week on proactive vs. reactive protagonists. (Thanks, Nathan.)

One of the commenters on Nathan’s blog said:

Whenever I read something like: “you have to have a proactive protagonist,” I immediately want to go out and write a story with a protagonist who sits around and stares at a wall until he dies. No offense to Rachelle Gardner, I’m sure she has a good point. I just get contrary that way.

I got a good laugh out of that because I have to admit, I’m the same way. I don’t like rules for rules’ sake, and it’s completely in my nature to set out to try and prove that a rule is wrong or ridiculous. I’m always looking for the loophole; always interested in the gray areas much more than the black and white (if black and white even exist).

If that’s the way I think, then why do I post pithy little bits of advice like “Your protagonist must be proactive”?

Many of you noted in your comments that there are various ways to look at the word proactive, and that physical action might not actually be necessary for a good story. Duly noted. And that ties into the point I want to make here.

The nature of my blog is that any individual post is not meant to definitively address any issue. In fact, each post only touches the tip of the iceberg on the topic at hand. The purpose is to state a piece of my opinion, then open it up to you, the readers. You get to expand on it, to take it deeper, to dissect it, to bring up possible arguments against it, to uncover the shades of gray.

A bit of advice like “Your MC must be proactive” is, of course, a generality. Overall, in most cases, it’s a good thing to remember, especially if you’re a newer writer. However, as many of you pointed out, it’s not that simple. Quite a few wonderful books – entire books – have been written about characterization. The topic of creating powerful characters is worthy of hours of discussion and many, many more hours of wrestling in your writing. A blog post can’t begin to cover it.

So don’t ever think I’m trying to be definitive here. If I allowed myself free rein, then every post I ever wrote would be several thousand words long so that I could deeply and thoroughly cover every permutation of every topic. I don’t want to to that; I simply want to call your attention to something you may not have thought about before, or something about which you might like a reminder.

Often, I’m responding to something I see happening in the stories of those who pitch or query me, as I was doing in my Wednesday and Thursday posts last week. I saw a trend; I saw that a lot of people needed to be reminded about protagonists being proactive. So I addressed it.

When you post comments that tell me you’ve heard what I said, or you add a new dimension to what I’ve written, or you ask readers to consider another point of view… that’s when I know I’m doing my job.

So thank you for engaging. Thank you for participating, and for thinking, and for taking the time to express your thoughts here. And thank you for understanding that I am never under the illusion that I have the answers. I don’t. And I’m perfectly happy this way.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Kat Harris on September 29, 2009 at 1:27 PM

    >I'm really glad you wrote this post because when I read the "proactive and reactive" post I wanted to scream.

    The "in general" rules of writing are driving me crazy. 🙂

  2. Holly on September 29, 2009 at 11:37 AM

    >Such fun to read your blog and the comments, Rachelle. Thank you for all of it. It's obvious you care about writers and are a ten on the 'helper' scale.
    Mary, I love the very humorous way you make the point. 🙂

  3. Anonymous on September 28, 2009 at 7:03 PM

    >Very interesting how some folks take offense at such simple yet sound advice. I'm not a big fan of the blow 'em up/shoot 'em up type books or stories either, but we do need a PLOT with ACTION and a character with motivation who ACTS not just reacts.

    ps/Andrew, that's hilarious! Tried to read Proust once but fell asleep…lol

  4. sds on September 28, 2009 at 6:14 PM

    >In psychology, to be responsive is considered the more healthy way to live, whereas to be reactive is less healthy. Sometimes I think the word proactive has a zealous spin to it, which makes it sound less thoughtful. If reactive is like floating on the waves and going wherever they take you; and responsive is like purposeful swimming toward a particular destination; then proactive sounds a little armed and dangerous, like a battleship that will take out any floaters or swimmers it encounters in its single-minded pursuit of its goal. We want our characters to have goals and work toward them with consciousness of (and sometimes in spite of) everything going on around them–responsive characters, who face challenges and make choices. Edith Wharton's characters weren't in fact just watching the paint dry if you think of it this way.

  5. Victoria Dixon on September 28, 2009 at 5:07 PM

    >Great read! Thanks!

  6. Anonymous on September 28, 2009 at 4:27 PM

    >Free Reign

  7. Gina on September 28, 2009 at 4:22 PM

    >It's funny you posted that today, because I just finished watching "The Age of Innocence" again, and I feel like I've seen a story with a protagonist who sits around and stares at a wall until he dies. 🙂 I actually like the movie (and love the book), but it must be admitted that most of the action is beneath the surface. Edith Wharton was just one of the rare people who could pull off that sort of thing.

    And speaking of rare — Rachelle, thank you for being one of those rare people who spell "free rein" correctly. If I see "free reign" one more time, I'm going to puke.

  8. Tamika: on September 28, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle for being transparent enough to make sure your readers know your desire to equip us with fruits of knowledge.

    It helps to tap into what other writers are thinking about what is being said.

    For me storing knowledge and apply it where ever I am in my writing journey is key.

    Keep giving us the tools to succeed!

  9. Marilynn Byerly on September 28, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    >I'm a great fan of Andre Norton, the incredible sf and fantasy author.

    When I read MERLIN'S MIRROR, I was so disappointed by the book, I reread it to figure out why.

    The character of Merlin has a mirror which tells him the future, and he has to make it happen. Through the whole novel, he does all kinds of active things but doesn't make the first important decision about his own life or what he wants to do. Instead, he's led along by that dang mirror.

    Being active as a character is as much about choices as it is about running around doing stuff to achieve a goal, particularly someone else's goal.

  10. Timothy Fish on September 28, 2009 at 2:50 PM

    >In the case of Bartleby the Scrivener, which Reesha mentioned, the protagonist is the narrator and the passive Bartleby is the antagonist. The narrator is very proactive.

    Forrest Gump, which is largely an example of deus ex machine, could also be seen as a story in which the world is the protagonist and Forrest is nothing more than an observer from Mars, so to speak. The world, in this case, is quite proactive as they try to place Forrest in a position of being a productive member of society.

  11. Jazz on September 28, 2009 at 1:56 PM

    >In Johnny Got His Gun, the protagonist does even less than sit and stare at a wall until he dies, but he's still quite proactive.

  12. Marla Taviano on September 28, 2009 at 1:47 PM

    >If you're flying below the radar, you're doing something wrong.

    Keep up the good work.

  13. Andrew on September 28, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    >It depends on what we are trying to do, here. Marcel Proust could certainly write a lot of pages about a character that is anything but proactive, but he does not tell what one might call a 'cracking good yarn.'

    What we are doing, at least most of us…is replying to the same impulse that leads any child to say, Tell Me a Story!!!!

    And would YOU read Proust to your kid?

  14. Anonymous on September 28, 2009 at 12:27 PM

    >A good mystery/thriller has lots of plot twists and turns so you def do need an active MC in crime fiction. Frankly, a passive protag who sits around and whines bores me to tears. Guess it depends on the book, but a lot of internal monologue and no action puts me to sleep. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes!

  15. Anita on September 28, 2009 at 11:49 AM

    >I think that because I read sooo much, I see a lot of the same things over and over like you see in pitches and queries…so I know where you're coming from with the passive character thing.

    Another Example: Where are all the characters coming from who have two different colored eyes? Seriously, it's like a plague of blue/green.

  16. Mira on September 28, 2009 at 11:21 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I really like what you had to say about this.

    Thanks for being so open, upfront and honest. I love the dialogue that you foster. 🙂

  17. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on September 28, 2009 at 10:58 AM

    >Good morning, Rachelle,

    In your original post on proactive vs. reactive MC you said "She may start off fairly weak and allowing circumstances to determine her fate, but later learns to be more assertive and make her own decisions."

    When I first read that, I thought you meant that she started out with a weak personality / character and that was what changed. I could not see how the MC character / personality could change (unless it was a story like "Sybil") and the story maintain its integrity with the reader. Today's post helped me understand what you meant.

    Thanks for clearing away my fog.

    Be blessed,


  18. D.I. Telbat on September 28, 2009 at 10:50 AM

    >Point understood. Thanks.
    I read the Washington Post article from Friday. Gives us all hope! Thanks for passing that on.

  19. Doug Spurling on September 28, 2009 at 10:45 AM

    >"I don't want to to that;"

    Me neither.

    Of course to to is better than do do.

  20. Craven on September 28, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    >Forrest Gump is the only successful non-proactive protagonist I know of, but the writitng and story are brilliant. If that's how high the bar is set, I think most of us should move along and keep our protagonists as proactive as we can.

  21. Roxane B. Salonen on September 28, 2009 at 10:21 AM

    >I, too, am stubborn about rules that don't make sense to me. At the very least, I probe until I understand them, then and only then does humble acceptance come. The "because I said so" way is something to which I tend to rebel — I think the same is true for most of us. However, I have learned in my old age of 41 that guidelines are just that. They are there to help us navigate this world. We absorb them into us and then apply them in the way that makes sense to our particular situation. One thing is for sure, Rachelle, you will never please everyone. The only thing you and any of us can do is offer the best we have and hope that our lights will shine for those who are ready to receive the good we are trying to channel as vessels of Christ and as fellow human beings with unique gifts. Keep on keeping on. We are all the better for it, even when it makes us go, "Huh?" 🙂 In fact, especially when it does!

  22. T. Anne on September 28, 2009 at 10:13 AM

    >I do like to follow rules, although I find myself breaking them mostly. I suppose it's the power of the pen that draws me to that sort of rebellion.

  23. Reesha on September 28, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    >Hasn't anyone ever heard of Bartelby by Herman Melville? (The same guy who wrote Moby Dick.)
    It's a classic, and yes, the main character does just stand and stare at the wall until he dies. Literally! I loved that book.

    Just wanted to make sure it got noticed on such a topic.

    After reading the posts and comments on this, my conclusion is that an MC should be proactive, unless the writer is PURPOSEFULLY trying to make them not proactive. Accidentally letting them become that way is probably not the best idea.

  24. Sharon A. Lavy on September 28, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    >"Your MC must be proactive". My story has two protagonists. This is exactly why I am switching which one is the main character.

  25. Rachel Starr Thomson on September 28, 2009 at 9:28 AM

    >"If I allowed myself free rein, then every post I ever wrote would be several thousand words long so that I could deeply and thoroughly cover every permutation of every topic."

    And THAT, as anyone who blogs knows, could take over your entire life. Followed by the takeover of your readers' lives as they try to keep up with the comments.

    Thanks for all you post, for the length and breadth and depth, and for the limits thereof :). It's good stuff.

  26. PatriciaW on September 28, 2009 at 9:24 AM

    >Your explanation, "The nature of my blog is that any individual post is not meant to definitively address any issue", sounded like something an IRS agent might say to explain why someone who followed the tax laws to the letter might still be audited and found wanting. Made me laugh.

    Anyway, I think writers are so eager for information and direction, especially new ones, that they take anything posted by industry professionals as gospel. I was this way once. In my experience, that begins to lessen as they actually write, learn, gain confidence…and take a few deep breaths.

  27. Mary DeMuth on September 28, 2009 at 8:49 AM

    >oops, typo. "sit here and stare" although "sit her and stare" makes it interesting.

  28. Mary DeMuth on September 28, 2009 at 8:48 AM

    >Rachelle, cloistered away in agenting nirvana, stared at her computer screen, trying desperately to count the pixels, finally giving up at 12,567. So she turned her dubious attention to her window. The trees swayed. A dog barked. A child hollered. A bird chirped. Rachelle smiled. Ah, she thought, being an agent is the life. I get to sit her and stare, all the while bewitching others to believe I'm a proactive protagonist.

    She sipped her coffee, pet her dog, then sighed.

  29. David Fields on September 28, 2009 at 7:48 AM

    >You do pose an interesting question about proactive vs reactive, though–just how many people in real life [i]are[/i] proactive?

    To give you a generalized idea: The neighborhood I live in is almost brand new and consists of townhouses, carriage houses (large duplexes) and single-family homes. The majority of the townhouses are rentals, as are the carriage houses, but the single-family homes are all owned by their residents. Looking in the front yard of each of them, you might have found maybe ten posted burglar alarm systems in the entire neighborhood. During the summer, someone was caught breaking into one of the townhomes. Now almost every single-family house and about half of the 'owned' townhomes have signs advertising security systems.

    The point? That only a tiny percentage of average people are truly proactive; nearly everyone is either reactive or so jaded as to be totally uncaring either way. A reactive character can make a good story, it just depends on what lessons that character learns.

  30. Timothy Fish on September 28, 2009 at 6:54 AM

    >I've never written a story about a guy who sits and stares at a wall until he dies (though it does bring to mind some interesting ideas), but some time ago I wrote a story about a boy sitting like a bump on a log. But I still think the protagonist must be proactive. I don't see that as a rule but part of the definition of a protagonist. How can we consider a character to be the "leading character" if he isn't proactive? So, if our protagonist isn't proactive, then maybe we don't understand who our protagonist is.

  31. Krista Phillips on September 28, 2009 at 6:48 AM

    >Oh my, I do the same thing with rules. We were talking about "goals" in an online class one time and the instructor said something like, "In romance, your character needs a stronger goal then just to 'find a mate'. Their goal has to be bigger than that."

    I laughed an evil haughty laugh, because personally I have one of my books where the main goal of the character, at FIRST, is go find a spouse. Now, this is a really FUNNY book and she goes about it in a very funny way to find one… AND as the story unfolds other internal goals appear… AND she has a good motive for this goal… but yeah. My creative mind runs rapid when someone says, "You can't write about…" or uses the word "never" in a sentence about writing:-)

    Although… this said, I agree that characters need to be proactive. I do think a book could have a character who WANTS to be proactive but things keep getting thrown at her that makes her REactive and hard to achieve what she sets out to do… but even then she's being proactive to respond reactively (Hmmm…)

  32. Skeptic on September 28, 2009 at 6:22 AM

    >So thank you for engaging. Thank you for participating, and for thinking, and for taking the time to express your thoughts here. And thank you for understanding that I am never under the illusion that I have the answers. I don't. And I'm perfectly happy this way.

    You're a proactive protagonist. 😉

    On my read/believe/engage scale with characters, the more flawed they are, the more interesting they become to me. I read a lot of crime fiction though, so that makes sense.

    In general, when characters are too perfect, too good to be true, they're just flat. Human and flawed doesn't mean protagonists aren't proactive. It's the struggle that makes them engaging. Do the right thing vs. succumb to temptation and weakness.

    That's just my very subjective opinion.

    I enjoy your blog, read it daily, even though my fiction would not pass muster with what you represent. You're a good teacher. Thank you for your insights. They are always appreciated.

  33. Heather Sunseri on September 28, 2009 at 4:37 AM

    >Rachelle – your post today makes me want to shout about the dangers of blogging about a topic that most of us know could be an entire 12-week college course. Most bloggers get the fact that a blog post from you, or anyone, is a snapshot of what you want to say in a given moment and take the advice for what it is – good advice to consider while developing a protagonist. Your post last week was perfect advice for me at the time. I stopped and considered if I had allowed my character to become boring and passive, and then I tweaked her a litte because of it.

    So, I for one, thank you for your snippets of advice. They always make me think and dig deeper.

  34. Erastes on September 28, 2009 at 3:51 AM

    >I sort of agree with him, that post did make me feel that too – but I understood exactly what you were meaning, and that you deal in generalities. I don't like passive characters, but there's a difference between an active protagonist who creates the story, and one that is caught up in events, that has the maelstrom of life happen around him. I'm thinking Empire of the Sun off the top of my head, but there are loads of others, I'm sure. Sometimes all a protag can do is to twist and turn in the wind and survive the events of the story the best he or she can – which makes him or her active in that way, I suppose, even if they can't escape what's happening round them. A truly passive protag would just let events destroy him, i suppose.

    Hope that makes sense.