making your characters active, even when they’re not

ericahayes Erica Hayes is one of those magical authors who is generous with her time. I’ve been reading her informative posts on other blogs and was absolutely delighted when she accepted my invitation to write a guest post for helluo librorum.

Erica knows how to write effective characters, and her skill is evidentShadowfaecover if you take the time to read Shadowfae, the first novel in her Shadowfae Chronicles. Erica has created “a secret world veiled in fairy glamour and brimming with unearthly delights. A city swarming with half-mad fairies, where thieving spriggans rob you blind, beautiful banshees mesmerise you with their song and big green trolls bust heads at nightclubs.”

shadowglassHer latest novel, Shadowglass (book two of the Shadowfae Chronicles), which is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2010, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

How does Erica make her characters and situations so believable? Well, that’s what she is here to talk about today. Without further ado, I present Erica Hayes:

Making Your Characters Active, Even When They’re Not

by Erica Hayes

We’ve all heard it a hundred times: your main character must be active.

So what does active really mean? We’re talking about the difference between active and passive, right? Your MC isn’t just the point of view character — they’re the one who drives the story. They don’t just wait around for things to happen to them. They create the action. They’re the protagonist, which comes from the Greek protagonistes, meaning ‘first actor’.

So your main character acts first, and the story grows from what they do. Right?

It’s a good guideline. No one wants to read about a heroine who never makes a choice or takes a risk.

But sometimes, things just happen to people. Characters aren’t always in control right from the beginning. Sometimes, you need the serial killer to strike first, so the detective will get assigned to the case. Or you need a tornado to rip in and whisk Dorothy away. Otherwise, how will she get to Oz and kill the Wicked Witch of the East, thus gaining the ruby slippers? She can’t follow the yellow brick road — can’t make her heroine’s journey — if the tornado doesn’t start her off. No tornado, no story.

Or, you might want your dashing romance hero to burst in and rescue Lady Heroine from the Dread Pirate Boris and his evil band of cutthroats. Even if it means the heroine’s not driving the action at that point. Because it’s an awesome meeting scene, and a great source of conflict, and anyway, what kind of weakling hero would stand by and let a beautiful lady get ravished by pirates?

So having your protagonist the only source of action doesn’t always make sense. It can make a mess of other characters’ motivations — in the example above, it makes our hero decidedly unheroic if he leaves Lady Heroine to stew — and it can turn a perfectly good antagonist into a plot-convenient cipher.

So what tricks can a writer employ to avoid the pitfalls of a passive MC, but still have other characters drive the action in those scenes where it’s required?

1. Make sure the MC has a plan.

Readers will like Lady Heroine a whole lot more if, when the hero bursts in, she’s fighting the Dread Pirate Boris off with her nail file, rather than weeping helplessly in the corner. And remember, her plan doesn’t need to have a high chance of success. So long as she’s trying her best, it doesn’t matter if her resources aren’t up to the task. Have her decide what to do, and begin to act. And then let the other character interrupt. Same with MC-captured-by-the-villain scenes: just make sure the MC wasn’t waiting around for it to happen. Give her a plan and the resources to put it into effect, and the villain can interrupt her just as she’s on the cusp of action without making her seem like a wimp.

2. Don’t force other characters into actions that suit your MC.

If your villain is truly motivated to win, he won’t sit around and wait for the heroine to act. And he won’t ever do what she expects. Even a potential love interest won’t always do what the MC wants or needs — he/she will have their own agenda. So let the antagonist (whether it’s a serial killer, a love interest or a tornado) be strong and unpredictable, and catch the MC off guard occasionally — but make sure the MC grabs the ensuing opportunity with both hands. So long as she reacts in a way readers can understand, it’s okay for the MC to be reactive, at least for a while. This is where the technique of ‘scene and sequel’ comes in handy:

Scene = antagonist does something e.g. killer strikes, tornado blows house away, pirates attack.

Sequel = MC assimilates what happened, thinks what will I do now? and summons resources.

Next scene = MC responds.

The sequel part is used to show the reader why the MC chooses the response she does. Without this, her actions can seem arbitrary, thoughtless, or worse, stupid. So pay close attention to sequels — sometimes a couple of sentences are all that’s required.

One last thing: at the final confrontation, the MC really does need to be the active character. That’s what character arc means — your character must grow sufficiently in strength to be able to win through on their own in the end. The climax won’t be very climactic if someone else is doing all the work.

P.S. Thanks to Teresa for having me here today!


Thank you, Erica, for taking time out of your busy schedule to write an article for us!

You can read more of Erica’s guest posts and learn more about Erica and the world of Shadowfae by visiting these sites:

Guest posts by Erica:

Magical powers – you do the charm, you wear the harm

Lets Hear It for the Bad Guys (or vampires and why they’re cool)

My personal favorite: Conflict, or Tales of the Unexpected.

There are two great interviews with Erica at SciFiGuy and Dark Faerie Tales.

You can also visit Erica at her blog: Faerylite ; her web site: The Shadowfae Chronicles ; or follow her on Twitter.

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About T. Frohock

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11 Responses to making your characters active, even when they’re not

  1. lawrenceez says:

    Wow, fascinasting. Thanks for sharing.

    I think I’ve managed to make my MC more believable while beginning to explore their emotional journey. Currently at 51,000 words in the novel.

    • Teresa says:

      Didn’t Erica do a lovely job? I’ve really enjoyed all her posts.

      That’s really great news about your edits!


      • lawrenceez says:

        Hi Teresa, I’ve written posted a blog article developing some of the issues raised and arguing in favour of psychological drama where the central characters descends into emotional mayhem. It’s kind of relevant to my own novel.

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    Hi Erica- Great post. I’ve struggled with this, too. My MC’s character arc takes her from being acted upon to making her own decisions, and I’ve gotten some well-intentioned reviews that she needs to be active. Your comment about the protagonist not necessarily being up to the challenges in the early scenes is just the reassurance I needed.

    And great article Teresa! -Kelly

  3. Great blog post as aways, Erica! I love finding ways to make my MC active or reactive within the confines of her situation (the 16th C).

  4. Awesome, Erica! You’ve made what I knew in my gut so very clear for me. Thanks heaps — muwah!

  5. A great and informative post, Ericia.

  6. RKCharron says:

    Hi Erica 🙂
    Thank you for the excellent writing advice.
    I cut & pasted it into my writing folder to read & reread.
    All the best,

  7. AleBB says:

    Great Post!! Thank you so much for the advice =)
    You’re made of awesome!

  8. I agree with AleBB, Erica, you are full of awesomeness! Teresa, you already know you are the bomb!

    My MC’s act just like me, which is why they’re all nuts!!

    xoxo — Hilary

Comments are closed.