I love my critique group here in Seattle. They are a really great group of really talented gals. And I was SO EXCITED for them to read my submission this last week because it is one of the big reveals of the story and this chunk of 20 pages was just SO GOOD. I couldn’t wait for the praise to start. For the, “Why did you stop here? I want more! You’re such a fantastic writer!” And the me blushing and “Aw shucks”-ing…
But here’s how it really went down…
Me: Readying myself for applaud
MK: It was good. But your protagonist needs to me more, well, proactive. She’s just too reactive.
KM: Great reveal. But I think your main character needs to be less reactive. She needs to stop letting things happen to her and start making things happen.
CS: I wished that she would have been the catalyst for the reveal by questioning and pushing him to be honest with her. Since this is something I struggle with, a reactionary protagonist instead of a proactive one, it is something I noticed right away. So far she’s been pretty good about forging ahead and being proactive, but this scene seems to happen TO her instead of BECAUSE of her.
Me: So…no applause?
Lessons learned here? 1. Critique groups are AMAZING. They keep you focused, give you encouragement, and bring you back down to Earth when you tart to think too much of yourself. 2. Your Work in Progress is just that…in progress and always needing revisions. 3. Reactive characters suck. And that’s the one we are focusing on today.
In order to have an effective, compelling protagonist, that character has to be proactive and make the story happen.
It’s easy as a writer to slip into the dangerous, murky waters of “reactionism,” in which you think your MC is being proactive because you have created all of these obstacles for him/her. Imagine your character as one of those plate-spinners. You, as the author, have given your character who knows how many plates sitting atop of those bendy poles. And sure, it can be impressive when there are a few dozen plates twirling around. But does your MC just stand there and hold them?
So, 3 ways to make sure your protagonist stays proactive:
1. Make sure you keep your MC’s goal at the forefront of your audience’s mind. Whether the goal is an over-arching goal that encompasses the whole story, or just one pertinent to that particular chapter, it needs to have attention drawn to it. That goal is important and defines your character.
2. Show how your character pursues that goal. This does a lot for character development because your MC can act alone if he/she is smart and cunning enough, get help from friends if he/she is popular and well-liked enough, is forced into it…the list goes on.
3. (And here is the one that got me, apparently) Make sure your MC is ACTIVELY PURSUING the goal. Not just how like in my second point just above, but you have to MAKE YOUR MC DO STUFF. I know that doesn’t sound very professional, but it’s the truth. Don’t let things just happen to him/her. You need to make your MC go out and actively do stuff. Make him/her look for clues. Make her openly flirt with the guy she likes. Make him research how to cast magical spells…then cast them. Whatever it is…make your protagonist DO IT. Not just let it happen.
When writing for a YA audience, another thing you have to take into consideration about your protagonist is that those young adult readers want to idolize your character. And so often in a teen’s life, they are forced to be reactive…decisions are being made for them, rules are being set for them…that they don’t want just another character to empathize with. They want to read about someone who sets his or her own goals and is proactive enough to make them happen.
So now that I’ve told you how to do it, it’s time for me to be proactive and make it happen in my own story. Then maybe my next submission will get the applause and undying admiration I was expecting this time!