Storycrafting: Active vs Reactive Characters

Following on from last week’s post about Villainous Strategery, I’m going to continue fleshing out this method of plot building (and maybe plot untangling/writer’s block de-blocking).

Two key questions to add to your plotting toolbox: What would your villains do if your heroes weren’t in the picture, and how would that play out? (This was last week’s post: your villains’ strategy: you should know it.)

The second key question is the reverse: what would your heroes be doing in the world if your villains weren’t in the picture?

An implied question in both of these is knowing what your villains threaten. In other words, it’s about hero and villain goals, but specifically considering the nuance of who acts, and who reacts. Are your heroes active or passive? Who is it that wants to act upon and change the world?

One story model is that the heroes are passive. Let’s look at the Lord of the Rings. Frodo is happy with the world. If Sauron didn’t exist and there was no ring, he’d live his days out in the Shire. He has no aspiration to act upon the world other than the simple life, but rises to the occasion when the world actor (in this case, Sauron) is evil.

Star Trek: Into Darkness: same. The villain takes action to achieve his ends, threatens the Federation, and Kirk has to react to prevent the action and maintain status quo.

Even Braveheart: William Wallace would have been content to marry, farm, and raise kids, until the English villains move to tighten the reins on Scotland.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. Howard Reork aspires to achievement, to change the world. He wants to make visionary architecture. This architecture poses a threat to the industry status-quo, and the villains react in order to prevent Howard from achieving his objectives. Howard’s not an antagonist; his achievement doesn’t threaten anyone, except those jealous of his achievement (but upsetting the status-quo of mediocrity).

Finding other clear-cut examples of the active hero are proving difficult for me… and I admit that’s most likely my own limitation based on what I’ve read (most fantasy I’ve read has been the first kind). We see some nuance in The Hobbit, where Thorin aspires to reclaim his homeland. The villain has already acted in that story, and Smaug owning the mountain and gold is already status quo. You could make an active and reactive argument to this story.

Dune is also more nuanced series. One could argue that Paul and Leto react to the world, but I’d argue that they (especially Leto in Children of Dune and God-Emperor of Dune is an active character. Leto is an example of what the hero would do without villains to oppose him (and is he the protagonist or villain himself?) He imposes his will on the universe, and there’s no one of consequence to oppose him.

In some ways, the reactive hero is the protective guardian of the good… somewhat conservative in that regards. The active hero offers revolution, challenging the status quo to change the world.

Those living the good life, whether utopian or more moderate, tend to have active villains that threaten the status quo. Dystopian or oppressive societies tend to have heroes that seek to better the world, and it’s the villains who want to preserve the status quo.

In a science-fiction or fantasy series, there is room for both types of stories. Our tendency, however, is to gravitate towards the passive hero (tendency, not absolute). Typical quest stories, and The Ahmbren Chronicles is guilty of this at times, features heroes whose tendency is to play nice, to not make waves, to not impose their will to change the world. (Aside: Maybe this is more prevalent in fantasy than sci-fi?) It’s harder to celebrate the person who presumes to change the world around them… and the more people they enforce change upon, the more likely they are to fill the role of villain.

In When Dragons Die, Aradma faces this dilemma. She chooses to wait and react, hesitant to impose her will on the world… but every time she waits, the world gets worse for it. By the end, she transforms into a completely active character that brings revolution to the status quo and changes the world. Still, even with that, most of the book features reactive heroes holding the line against an active evil. This is somewhat true of the prequel as well (currently being written).

With all this in mind, I’m going to make special effort on the sequels to showcase heroes who aspire to greatness, who would act in and on the world even without the villains, and it’s the villains who seek to thwart them.

The takeaway: another plotting tool to add to the tool box: what would your heroes do without the villains, and what would happen/what would your villains do without the heroes? Are your heroes protective heroes who react against evil aggression? Or are they aspiring heroes who seek to improve the world, and it’s the antagonist who rises up to stop them? These are possible starting points, and there’s no reason there can’t be blends of both elements in a story.

Until next week, cheers!

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