Last week, Mike talked about protagonists and antagonists, and pointed out that in many iconic stories, the protagonist is reactive and the antagonist is your proactive character. This week, I wanted to talk about reactive and proactive protagonists, and how they drive a story. Now, many characters are going to be a mixture of both–they might start reactive and then become proactive as the story progresses, or they might start proactive and then begin to react as their actions lead to fallout.
Many of us in our day-to-day lives are reactors. We sit comfortably in whatever we’re doing, whether that’s a desk job or acting as a lone gunman. The events that cause change–a lay-off, breaking up with a significant other, coping with a death in the family–are usually things that happen to us, rather than events we go out to seek. When it comes to storytelling, many characters are in the same situation, only that which they are reacting to often gets kicked up to the next notch or three in severity or drama. For example, instead of a fender-bender, the whole interstate crumbles below them. Instead of helping a friend move, they must move a Ring of Power across the known world. Given our experiences, we often default to make our characters reactive, because protagonist are capable of reacting to circumstances much greater than mere average Joes living average lives who do not get stories told about them.
So what about proactive characters? Proactive characters usually want something. They want something vitally important–whether for greed or love. It could be a person, an item, or an ideal. They want it so badly they’re pushing aside anything that gets in their way. Aren’t these qualities that we usually associate with antagonists? They certainly can be, but they work just fine for our protagonists, too. Your antagonists should have a level of proactiveness, of course, although they might start by reacting to a proactive protagonist. Chances are you have two willful people who want something that causes them to cross. That something could be money or world peace–it doesn’t matter. Your protagonist could be a treasure-hunter, and the antagonist another treasure-hunter competing for the same prize.
Ultimately, your character is likely to be a combination of reactive and proactive, but chances are that one is going to outweigh the other. Reactive characters often make us boggle at how strong they are–how one thing dumps on them after the other, yet they persevere. (Yet, most real-life people put into that situation will often tell you they would have preferred not to have to be so “strong.”) Proactive characters, I believe, are the people who wow us because they are who we secretly want to be–they aren’t afraid of change or to go after the things they really want–no matter what the setbacks are that happen along the way.