Is Your MC Proactive or Reactive?

This week I’ve been writing on topics that were brought to the forefront of my mind when I was at the ACFW conference and spoke with dozens of writers about their books. Today I want to talk about your protagonist, or MC (main character). I’ll make this brief:

Your MC must be proactive and make the story happen.

You cannot have an effective protagonist who simply responds to events happening around him or her. Your protagonist must act, not just react.

In Gone With the Wind, the Civil War begins and changes the lives of everyone in the South. Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters Suellen and Careen stay on at Tara waiting for the war to come to them. But the story isn’t about them, and good thing, because it would be darn boring. Instead the story centers on Scarlett, a strong-willed heroine who repeatedly takes matters into her own hands, making decisions (usually bad ones) and taking radical action in her attempts to make things turn out the way she wants. She might be making mistakes, but at least she’s making them, rather than sitting back and letting life happen to her.

In some stories, part of the heroine’s character arc is learning how to take control of her life. 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. In this case, you have the challenge of making this character likable. She needs to have a streak of hidden strength that the reader can see, even if the character herself doesn’t. Generally a weak or ineffectual protagonist won’t hold a reader’s interest for long.

Look at all the major events or plot points of your story. Did your MC make them happen? Or is your MC simply reacting to these events?

Is your protagonist creating the story, or is he/she simply being tossed on the waves of the story?

Often when you find your story or your MC isn’t compelling enough, you can trace it back to the MC’s passivity or reactivity in the story. Get your MC to make decisions and take actions that change the course of events, and boom! a much more effective protagonist and a better story.

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!


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  3. Poker on June 29, 2011 at 10:01 PM

    One of the greater posts I have read today. You’re hardly ever completely educated so cheers for the post!:)

  4. Jessica Bellis on September 28, 2009 at 1:05 PM

    >I am wondering if anyone has read the novel, Looking for Alaska? I am having a hard time understanding if Miles "Pudge" Halter is proactive or reactive? I can definitely see him being both proactive and reactive.
    He is definitely proactive at the beginning of the book by leaving his florida home to search the great perhaps. Can anyone else help me out?

  5. Lena on September 28, 2009 at 6:28 AM

    >I wonder about this. Yet when you think about superhero movies or police shows, what happens? Does the superhero create the conflict or does he/she react to it to stop the conflict? Do the police commit the murder or do they react to solve the case?

    Maybe it's not the idea of being reactive that makes an MC boring, but rather how they react. Are they defensive in their reaction or offensive. After all, a good defense is a great offense.

  6. Doug Spurling on September 27, 2009 at 2:55 PM

    >Get your MC to make decisions and take actions that change the course of events, and boom! a much more effective protagonist and a better story…and a similar outcome if applied to life.

  7. Rachel Starr Thomson on September 25, 2009 at 9:41 AM

    >Several years ago I decided to write a trilogy. First book, "Worlds Unseen," was easy to write. Second book, "Burning Light," ditto. Third book, "The Advent" — I wrote it, struggling through every page. I disliked it. I scrapped it. Tried again; still didn't like it. Wrote 80 pages and scrapped them all. I'm now writing another version of "The Advent," and this time it's working. The big change? In this version, the heroine is proactive. That's the only real difference. And it's HUGE.

    Great advice, Rachelle :). I can testify that not only is a book better reading when the protag is proactive, it's better writing too.

  8. She Wrote on September 25, 2009 at 8:20 AM

    >However, your protagonist can also be the conduit of the story's action – the "hub of the wheel", so to speak, bringing everything to the climax when all of the forces come together. At that point your protagonist can be the person (and reason) who forces the ultimate "action" to occur.

  9. Andrew on September 25, 2009 at 12:25 AM

    >Works pretty well in real life, too.

  10. Kimberlee Conway Ireton on September 24, 2009 at 11:44 PM

    >This has been a very interesting discussion, though I think we need to be careful when we talk about taking action. Often we associate that phrase with a character doing things, and while that’s one way to think about it, taking action is more than just what characters do; it’s also how and what they think and believe and feel—and the way those thoughts, beliefs, and feelings change over time.

    A character like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice doesn’t take a lot of action as we usually think of that word. Truly, her “action” is often in the form of accepting or rejecting others’ offers, be they of trips to Kent or the Lakes or proposals of marriage—what most people would call “reactions.” But these actions (or reactions) still propel the story forward.

    Further, since the arc of this story is primarily internal, much of the “action” of the story is also internal, as Elizabeth moves from loathing Darcy to loving him, and those internal shifts in her attitude are also “action.”

    If we’re going to say that characters must take action, we need to keep our definition of taking action broad.

  11. Ava Walker Jenkins on September 24, 2009 at 10:01 PM

    >Many thanks, Rachelle, for such helpful advice. I realize now that my MC, not yet a WIP, was solidifying into a reactive character. I couldn't quite pick up on why I was having problems with her until I read your well-timed info! You have totally solved the problem . . . now the lucky MC is scheduled for a rebirth!!!

  12. TLH on September 24, 2009 at 9:01 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle. That's something I have to constantly check myself on.

    I might say though, that this is good advice not only in writing, but in life. Go out and make it happen, don't sit back and wait for life to come to you!

  13. Rachel on September 24, 2009 at 8:10 PM

    >Ooo I love this kind of post. I like tips about the publishing business, but writing advice from a pro? What a treat!!

  14. Gwen Stewart--Singer-Scribe on September 24, 2009 at 5:03 PM

    >Yes, I must compel my MC to sit up and do some of the page turning herself rather than let the story turn the pages for her.

    And yes, I'm picturing the Winnie the Pooh television shows wherein the characters come off the page. Hey, I'm whimsical–what can I say? 🙂

    Have a great evening, Rachelle!

  15. Timothy Fish on September 24, 2009 at 4:33 PM

    >To clarify my comment concerning The Yearling, at the inciting incident it is a rattlesnake bite and as a result the need to kill the mother deer that thrusts the young deer into the care of our protagonist. Yes, Jody is actively involved in his life as he knew it, but it is events outside of his control that cause him to take on the care of the deer. However, moving into the final act, Jody is much more proactive than reactive. We see this in that he refused to kill Flag, then kills him, runs away from home, but then makes the decision to return.

    My point, which seems to have gotten missed, is that often (as in real life) our protagonists are unwilling to change until change is thrust upon them. Moving from the first act to the second act is often a reactive event. But when we’re talking about the normal everyday actions, of course the protagonist should be proactive, even if he is proactive about doing nothing. Isn’t that a given?

    Can you imagine what a mess we would have if we forced our protagonists to be proactive about moving into the second act? Stories like Stephen King’s Misery just wouldn’t be the same.

  16. Anita Saxena on September 24, 2009 at 3:09 PM

    >Thank you for this important reminder.

  17. Genny on September 24, 2009 at 1:24 PM

    >I REALLY needed this post today. I've been working on edits to my MG manuscript and I've been taking a close look at my MC. This post gave me some great ideas; thank you!

  18. Dawn Kinzer on September 24, 2009 at 12:40 PM

    >Thanks for affirming my own thoughts.

    This is one of the reasons why I didn't pitch this year at the ACFW conference.

    I realized I needed to fix this very thing in my novel.The revisions I have in mind will not only make my protagonist stronger, but also more likeable.

    And forgive me if I'm wrong -but I don't think Rachelle meant that in order for a protag to be active/assertive that she needs to be jump tall buildings with a single bound or use martial arts to fight her opponents.

    The protag can be strong and quiet at the same time. But she shouldn't be a doormat through the whole story. At some point she needs to stand up for herself and not wait for other people to fix what's wrong in her life for her.

  19. Rebecca LuElla Miller on September 24, 2009 at 12:36 PM

    >Rachelle, I think this is such an important post. However, in reading the comments, I think some are missing a key ingredient. The issue isn't between action and non-action but between the MC having a goal and not having a goal.

    One commenter mentioned The Yearling as an example of a reactive MC, but on the first page–first paragraph, in fact–we get these lines: "His mother was hanging up pots and pans after the noon dinner. The day was Friday. She would sweep the floor with a broom of ti-ti and after that, if he were lucky, she would scrub it with the corn shucks scrub. If she scrubbed the floor she would not miss him until he reached the Glen. He stood a minute, balancing the hoe on his shoulder."

    Here's a boy who wants something. By the end of the next paragraph, he wants to follow the line of wild bees. And then "He stood his hoe against the split-rail fence. He walked down the cornfield until he was out of sight of the cabin."

    And we're hooked. Is he headed for trouble? Will his parents catch him? All because, in a page, this character had a restless spirit that triggered him to act.

    Is this the inciting incident? No, but that's the point. A character from the beginning needs to have an objective, even before the story trigger takes place.

    Too many characters are happy to go along, willing only to rebuff the difficulties that come their way. But those are not characters a reader can cheer for. They want nothing, so we can't hope that their efforts will get them their objective. We can only fear for them, and somehow that's not enough, I don't think.


  20. Douglas L. Perry on September 24, 2009 at 12:30 PM

    >Bingo, this is exactly what is wrong with the current version of my manuscript. My protagonist becomes stronger at the end, and makes some tough decisions, but at the beginning she is just plain boring. I am busily working on this very thing as I comment. Great post!

  21. A J Hawke on September 24, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    >I agree that we want something to happen in the story, but actions alone do not necessarily show more strength. A MC who can wait and have patience can be as strong as one who is always charging ahead. Sometimes strength of character is shown by the quiet reaction that is the right next step.

    I wonder if our insistence on action and always the "doing something," is not a results of being so well trained by present day media. Our minds are not trained to contemplate, wait, and use wisdom.

    To have a MC that sits and looks out over the hills is usually tagged in a critique with comments of "have him do something." Which he will eventually, but does it have to be every single sentence of the story? Just wondering…

    A J

  22. Anonymous on September 24, 2009 at 12:02 PM

    >Frankly, I think passive women relate better to reactive, wimpy characters while assertive women prefer proactive, feisty heroines. Glad there are so many choices out there–to each his/her own!

  23. Patience-please on September 24, 2009 at 11:36 AM

    >I recently re-read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and I was so angry at the MC. We never even learn her name! She is so passive, reactive, nothing! Finally she is known as Mrs. de Winter, but even then she's a second, undeserving Mrs. de Winter.

    I know the point was to show the power of the male and the impotence of the woman, but gheesh!

    Thank you for the advice; timely and helpful it is!

  24. Jana on September 24, 2009 at 11:18 AM

    >Your last two posts give me hope– My MC is a double "F"– Feisty and Flawed. And yes there is character development of course, but mostly we get to watch her (yes, another "F" for Female) do stuff–Fail a lot–and dare I say, I'm having FUN with it–

  25. Kim Kasch on September 24, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    >I guess an MC has to be someone you want to spend time with. I ask myself, who are the people I want to hang out with: the people who sit around and wait for things to happen or people who get out there and make things happen? I'm just saying. . .

  26. Arabella on September 24, 2009 at 10:42 AM

    >action, action, action . . . We are an action-oriented society. We are easily bored. This is why I prefer British novels–because action isn't the main ideal. Feisty and strong-willed women have been done to death. They're practically a stereotype.

    I just finished a book, in which the main character is reactive and passive the entire book, and when she attempts to act, she completely fails–either that, or it's too little, too late. The book was a page turner. I couldn't put it down. Was she ever not weak and ineffectual? Nope. In the end, she had to get help from her boyfriend! The book was emotionally true, though, and I think that was the important part. I will probably never appreciate action-oriented novels, but I will read them as long as they are emotionally true.

    To be fair, though, I'm reading a book right now about a female protagonist who is strong-willed and action-oriented, and I actually really like it because she's not the big F word–FEISTY. I hate feisty heroines.

  27. tamika on September 24, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    >Thanks again Rachelle! This gives me deep motivation to examine my MC. I see alot of reacive tendancies that push her in some positive and some negative ways. Time for her to start getting in the driver's seat!

    I will add these to my writing checklist.

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

    Blessings to you…

  28. Bobbie on September 24, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    >Perfect post for me right now. Thank you! The MC of my WIP has a lot of things happen to her that affect the course of events, and my revisions have focused on making her take a little (to a lot) more initiative so she doesn't come off as too (as a previous commenter pointed out) Bella-ish. Sometimes even the little things can make a big difference: having her be the one to tell someone to leave rather than them leaving on their own. And the little things can add up to a more sympathetic character, just like real life. Wish I had time for more revisions today. Alas, the "real" job beckons.

  29. Kristen Torres-Toro on September 24, 2009 at 9:36 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle! This you're posts this week have been great help as I plot my next book. This is another post that I know will define how I write.

  30. Lydia Sharp on September 24, 2009 at 9:30 AM

    >Thank you! This is very closely related to the topic I planned to blog about tomorrow. I'll be sure to include a link to this post, especially since you used one of my favorite examples, Scarlett O'Hara.

  31. Timothy Fish on September 24, 2009 at 9:22 AM

    >In the sense that we don’t want the protagonist to just sit around and watch the world go by, I’ll agree with what you’ve said, but when we look at how a story is laid out, all protagonists are somewhat reactive. Prior to the inciting incident the protagonist is living out his life with no motivation for change. At the inciting incident, something happens that gives the protagonist a reason to change. Though he may make the decision about how he will change, he is reacting to that event. In some cases, he is thrust into the situation. In Where the Red Fern Grows we see a protagonist who makes the decision to buy coon dogs after a magazine with an ad in it happens to be where he is, but in The Yearling unexpected events led to raising the young deer. However, in all good stories, going into the about the last quarter of the book there is an event where the protagonist makes a conscious decision to take action, showing the change that has occurred.

  32. Anonymous on September 24, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    >This is an excellent point. A good way to show latent strength of character in a woman is to show her initially taking control of things that don't change her life. For example, her closet is hyperorganized or she is an accomplished embroiderer (something non-job related). For bonus points, the thing she is accomplished at should tie to how she eventually changes her life.

  33. Teri D. Smith on September 24, 2009 at 9:11 AM

    >Apparently Bethany House agrees with you. They want strong women characters.

    Strong women take steps to reach their goals.

  34. JenE on September 24, 2009 at 9:02 AM

    >This was just what I needed today, so thank you! I have been struggling with liking my own MC. How pathetic is that? I couldn't put my finger on what the problem was, but you spelled it out for me. My MC is being too reactive, and not proactive enough. Rewrite time! Thanks for the light bulb moment!

  35. Jason on September 24, 2009 at 8:57 AM

    >Wow…Rachelle, you are hitting 'em out of the park this week. Very insightful posts.

    Today's topic was a serious problem with my MC, but hopefully I've fixed it without losing her innocent stupidity. 🙂

  36. Karen Witemeyer on September 24, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    >Great tidbit, Rachelle. And so true. After going to conference, I went back and re-read the openning to my WIP and decided to completely scrap the two chapters I had written. I jumped further into the story where the action was more compelling and made the characters more proactive.

    Now, I just need to keep this bit of momentum going as I write the rest of the book. Thanks for the reminder!

  37. LindsRay on September 24, 2009 at 8:37 AM

    >This is perfect timing – I've been struggling with my main protagonist for the very same reason. Her hesitancy to act is part of her backstory – she wasn't able to get to her father's funeral because of it. However, I found that when I jumped the story a bit more and gave her a kick in the pants – she starts to be proactive because she MUST. There's still growth, but it's not such a dull beginning.

  38. Anonymous on September 24, 2009 at 8:32 AM

    >You write: "In this case, you have the challenge of making this character likable. She needs to have a streak of hidden strength that the reader can see, even if the character herself doesn't."

    This is exactly what I'm struggling with now, making sure that my MC is likable, despite the serious flaws she has. I think this is especially true in women's fiction, where the story is ALL about the arc.

    Maybe that's why I could never see what people raved about in the Shopaholic books, or even (I know, I'm horrid) Evanovich. I never got past the first chapter or so.

    I should go back and give these authors a chance. After all, isn't that what I'm asking agents to do? Hang on until my MC begins to tap into her own strength?

  39. MeganRebekah on September 24, 2009 at 7:53 AM

    >I love this post!
    So far I haven't had any problems with my MC being reactive, but I think that part of that is because I'm very aware of this issue. I don't want a boring character. I want her to be curious and bold (even while she's scared to death).

  40. Marla Taviano on September 24, 2009 at 7:37 AM

    >This makes me want to write fiction.
    This also makes me too scared to try.
    I would make a lousy MC.

  41. ~Aimee States on September 24, 2009 at 7:36 AM


  42. Reggie on September 24, 2009 at 7:35 AM

    >Interesting that the main character is the master of ceremony of the program of action. Thanks for all the great writing tips. I always find something I can use to improve my skills.

  43. Anonymous on September 24, 2009 at 7:31 AM

    >I agree, Rachelle–I find passive heroines (and real-life people) a bit of a bore. You want to shake them up and say: "Quit whining! Go do something about it!" Sadly, I know too many women like that, who only become active when forced to confront a bad situation. That's why I find many Victorian-era novels quite frustrating: The men seem to have all the power and control. Give me a feisty heroine any day, but I do prefer smart over stupid!

  44. Sharon A. Lavy on September 24, 2009 at 7:29 AM

    >I had the wrong character as MC and am now having to rewrite from the pov of the one who is active.

    Too bad I didn't read this months ago. LOL.

  45. yarnbuck on September 24, 2009 at 7:02 AM

    >Simple, yet a workshop-quality keeper. Thanks.

  46. Kate on September 24, 2009 at 6:38 AM

    >Hi, interesting post though I am not sure I agree. I find Tess in Tess of the D'urberville hugely reactive – a lot of terrible things happen to her and she reacts to them. Likewise a lot of Austen characters are quite reactive to me.
    Then again on a personal level I do prefer a proactive heroine as a preference. Sorry this has been a bit of a rambling post!

    Kate x

  47. Jessica on September 24, 2009 at 5:51 AM

    >This is a really good post. Before I discovered external goals (lol) my protags were reactive. Then I went back and gave them some goals, some things to pursue. Great reminder for me, thanks!

  48. Steve on September 24, 2009 at 3:22 AM

    >As a counter example consider Robert Heinlein's novel Job: A Comedy of Justice. The entire book consists of the protagonist being buffetted about by forces beyond his control or comprehension.

    However, it is a wonderful book, and Heinlein is a master craftsman. Much of the pleasure comes from the unique character of the protagonist as shown by his (ultimately futle) attempts to obtain some control or at least comprehsnsion of the situations in which he finds himself. The reader also thoroughly enjoys Heinlein's sense of setting. We are treated to a travelogue of universes. Plus, the latter part of the book offers a truly unique and amusing take on Heaven and Hell.

    If you can pull up a pic of the cover art, the bemused expression on the poor fellow's face says it all. He is there to be awed and amazed, as are we while we follow his journey.


  49. Mechelle Fogelsong on September 24, 2009 at 1:10 AM

    >Interesting. I wonder if this is why fans of Twilight say they don't really admire the character of Bella. Is she not proactive enough?

    On my blog, teen readers have been discussing their favorite books, favorite male protagonists, and favorite female protagonists. They love Twilight; they love Edward; they're only ho-hum about Bella. I've seen this pattern on my blog discussion and in my language arts/reading classroom at school.