Character Proactivity Workshop

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C-A-Harland's avatar
By C-A-Harland
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We’ve all heard about characters being strong, or competent, or flawed, or multi dimensional, but there’s another important character trait to remember: proactivity.

A proactive character is someone who moves the plot. Who makes decisions and then acts on them. For the sake of this article we’re going to define this process as “protagging,” a term borrowed from writer and illustrator Howard Tayler.

What is Protagging?

Characters who protag (i.e. protagonists) are generally more interesting and dynamic to watch. And the simple act of protagging can make up for a number of other character flaws, such as incompetency or general unlikeableness (assuming those traits are deliberate flaws you’ve built into your character). Pixar tells us that we love a character more for trying than for succeeding, and this is directly related to their ability to protag. A character who at least does something is going to be more interesting to watch, even if they fail at the task.

An example of this done well is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is not a very likeable person, he’s rude and abrasive. However he is extremely proactive. He sets things in motion, makes decisions, and acts on those choices. This makes him entertaining to watch/read about as the reader is constantly asking, “What’s he going to do next?”

Know When Your Characters Are Not Protagging

The opposite of this is characters who solely react to events around them. These characters do not actively set events in motion, rather they wait until something happens, then respond. This technique can be used, and in fact it is incredibly common, especially at the beginning of a typical hero story. Most hero stories begin with the character in a comfortable place, and it is only when an outside force (usually the villain) does something to upset that, that the hero leave his home to begin his journey.

Now, even in the Sherlock Holmes example, Sherlock is not protagging 100% of the time. He still sits at home and waits for cases to be presented to him, only then does he react.

Having your character react at the beginning of your story is perfectly acceptable, but once the wheels have been set in motion, you need to shift that paradigm and make your protagonist start protagging. Why? Because non-proactive characters are frustrating. The classic example of this is in horror movies, where the scared teenagers sit in a house and get killed by an axe-murderer one by one. Everyone screams at the TV, “Just call the police!” Or alternatively, “Shoot the bastard already!” The viewers lose interest in the character as an individual because that character has done nothing of note other than scream and run away.

Note: locking yourself in the bathroom is not protagging. It’s reacting.

So, what would protagging be in this situation? The teens could band together, come up with a strategy, and try to trap the killer. They could take up arms and go out hunting him themselves. A good example of this is the movie Home Alone. When Kevin is faced with intruders in his home, he proactively creates all manner of traps and distractions to stop, catch, or deter them.

Another example of when protagging falls down is the deus ex machina. This is a literary term for when a “higher power” (deity, other character, force of nature) intervenes at the last minute to save the day. The hero didn’t have to do anything and the situation is now resolved. This tends to leave readers feeling unsatisfied because the conclusion was not brought about by the character they’ve been following for the past 80k words.

Getting Your Characters to Protag

A key factor to having protaggey characters is giving them a goal. Once your character has a target in mind, they will invariably try to move towards it. That, more than anything, is going to get them protagging. Therefore, your first step should be to identify your character’s goal. Then, have them take action and make decisions based on that.

Let’s look at another example. Hero loses their home and family to Evil Overlord. After being out on their own for a while, just struggling to survive, they are approached by a group of rebels and offered the chance to take down Overlord and avenge their family. Rebel Leader comes up with a daring plan that only Hero can pull off and insists that they do so. Hero refuses, but then Rebel Leader dies, so Hero agrees to the insane plan, succeeds, and saves the world.

Was Hero protagging in this example?

Answer: No. Hero was not acting. Other people were acting, and Hero was existing among them.

Let’s try again. Hero loses their home and family to Evil Overlord. Filled with anger and grief, Hero sets out to stop Evil Overlord at all costs. After trying to take Overlord out and failing, Hero seeks out the aid of the rebels. Hero works their way into the group and befriends Rebel Leader so as get closer to defeating Overlord. Rebel Leader comes up with a plan, but Hero sees a flaw in it, but no one will listen to them. Before Rebel Leader can enact his own sure-to-fail plan, Hero races out to perform a crazy and daring act that saves the world.

Was Hero protagging? This time, yes. Rather than let the decisions and actions of others dictate their movements, Hero set out on their own quest, with their own goals in mind. Hero came up with ideas and acted on them, and didn’t wait for outside events to push them down a certain path.

Does this mean a protagonist can never react to a situation? Of course not. Remember Sherlock sitting at home, waiting for a case? It’s okay to have another character or event nudge your character towards a certain path, as long as that character has a path to begin with.

The key to protagging is simple: Identify your goal. Make decisions. Act on those choices.


Take your current story-in-progress or a story you recently wrote and list out all the actions your protagonist takes. Then identify if they are reacting to an event of your story or actively protagging. What does the balance look like? Does your character react more than they protag? If so, brainstorm some ways you can change the events of your story so your character is protagging and taking charge of their own destiny.

Submit your findings as a deviations and upload it to the June Characterization Workshop gallery folder.


Have you ever heard of protagging before (not necessarily that exact term)? What are you favorite examples of highly protaggey characters? What’s a story you read or watched recently where the protagonists merely reacted to the plot events, and how do you think the creators could’ve changed the story to make for a stronger protagonist?


Plot Devices-Deus Ex Machina?
Plot Devices:
Deus Ex Machina or Chekhov's Gun?

----Original Message----
"What are your thoughts on Good Deus Ex Machinas? I find them hard to pull off realistically in a plot." -- Puzzled Writer
A Deus Ex Machina is when the Hero doesn't find the solution to the story's problem. The solution is handed to them, or taken care of, by someone or something far more powerful.
From TV Tropes:
A Deus Ex Machina is an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his

Writing Excuses - Adjusting Character Proactivity

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AnalyticArt's avatar
This explains so many problems with one of my protagonists.
C-A-Harland's avatar
I'm glad you found it useful.
some1eleven's avatar
... or you can write literary fiction, and get praised by old farts in the lit depts of European universities who believe they can decide what is and isn't literature ^^;


I never heard of the term before, but the concept of *cough* character agency is quite familiar to me, yes :aww:

Favourite example: Aliens. A horror movie with a highly active cast that goes through all the stages of facing their circumstances... Including the impact of the repeating failures.

Examples of lack of character agency: Majority of Japanese video games I've played. Which also serves to illustrate another point - "Protagging" is a highly culturally-charged idea. The audiences in different cultures have very different expectations of it, and it's not always desirable. Before thinking 'how' I'd give more agency to the protagonists of these games, I'd wonder 'why'. They weren't written for a Western customer, and the target native audience appears quite happy with them.
C-A-Harland's avatar
That's a good example.

And yes, you're right; cultures play heavily into topics like this, as do genres. Certain styles of writing rely more heavily on active characters than others. For example, a murder mystery story in which the character never actually tried to solve the mystery, but instead just waited for the answer to fall into their lap would be a bit dull.
Games are slightly different again. Even though they often follow a narrative, they rely on the player to do part of the work, and the player requires guidance, because they don't know they story before they start. Guidance usually comes in the form of an NPC telling the character/player something, or giving them a quest to complete. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is obviously quite a successful format.
some1eleven's avatar
Well, with a crime mystery, the true problem is the tracks getting cold. The more time passes, the less likely it is that it'll ever be solved. That kind of a plot requires agency - there is simply no place for passive protagonists. It's not even a matter of a dull or interesting story, but of the internal logic of the story.

Oh, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about protagonists who literally have no active role in the story. Typically they're thrown into a wrong place at a wrong time, save the day, then wait till they find themselves in a wrong place at a wrong time again. There are no follow up actions in-between the crises, no attempts to catch the people responsible, not even a drive to prepare for the next time. The protagonists sit on their thumbs waiting for the next thing the world throws at them.
As far from 'plotting' as it can get - and still, millions of customers in Asia don't seem to mind :aww:
Vixenkiba's avatar
I have to admit, I had never really heard of protagging/proactivity before reading this workshop, and had also never really thought about the role of action vs reaction in stories. So this article got me thinking as well!

I must admit it looks the best if characters show a balance of action and reaction in a story, but this isn't always the case. For example, right now I am re-reading Harry Potter and the goblet of fire for the bazillionth time, and if there is one character in that book who doesn't do a lot of protagging, it is Harry. Harry gets swept from one situation into another, eventually gets to be a competitor in the tournament for the goblet, and even in finding hints for the tasks that are about to come he fails, and other characters have to prepare him and show him what is to come. The only thing Harry really does in this book, is react to all the bizarre situations he is in. But does that make the book less enjoyable for me? No! Haha, I quite like reading it, and if I were the same age as Harry and in the same situation, I maybe would do the same. It seems more natural to me that Harry simply reacts to all the situations, because he is still young and inexperienced, and still needs other people to rely on.
If the writer had made Harry more of a stronger protagonist, this would've drastically changed Harry's whole personality, as well as his character development through the series. Later on in the series, Harry does become a stronger protagonist, when he has more of an age to be so.

What do you think about that example? ;D
C-A-Harland's avatar
That's a great example, and you're right, in The Goblet of Fire, as with the other early books in the series, Harry does do a lot of reacting to the main plot points. As you've said, this is somewhat necessary in order to move things forward in a logical manner. However, that's doesn't mean Harry is reacting all of the time. He does still have his protagging moments, but they are smaller details in larger scenes. For example, Cedric gives Harry the hint about the bathroom, but Harry still has to decide to go there, figure out how to use the egg, and then ask Myrtle for information. Even though this scene was initially set up by a reaction, there are still elements of protagging. The same goes for when he is in the lake and he decides to go back for Fleur's little sister. That decision is him being proactive.
You are also correct in saying that part of Harry's character development throughout the series is to become more proactive, and this is especially illustrated in the seventh book, when he finally starts trying to take control of his own destiny.

Thanks so much for commenting :)
Vixenkiba's avatar
True, true, it's good to point out that there are also situations where protagging elements exist within reaction elements! The article focuses on only either protagging or reaction, and not on the situations that have a mix of both, so it's good to add this to the discussion =) 

Much welcome, my pleasure!
AliceSacco's avatar
One of rare things i understood by my own. Still interesting to read.

A lot of beginners do the mistake to create characters that do nothing but wait.
C-A-Harland's avatar

Yes, that's true. And while it can sometimes work very well within a story to have a reactive character, more often than not, it doesn't. The trick is always finding the balance between reacting to situations, and taking action. :)
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
I had not heard of protagging itself before, but I had a friend who drew my attention to its lack in part one of my own story. He essentially pointed out that Rurik, who is certainly a main character but not THE main character, felt more like the protagonist in part one than my intended protagonist did. He said Rurik was the one much more in charge of the situation, aware of what's going on, and determined to do something about it. I think that, for that section of the book, that is exactly how it needs to be, but my friend definitely awakened me to the need to make my protagonist be a more proactive actor in the world around her. As I was writing the final chapter of that section, I could feel the character herself changing to fit that need.

My own writing is influenced a lot by the work of Garth Nix (author of the Abhorsen Chronicles), who I think does an amazing job of creating characters who are in the middle of events outside their control that still feel in charge. Most recently I read the prequel to the series, Clariel, in which the title character is forced to go to a city she hates and spends the entire book caught up in the events around her simply trying to get back to the forest she loves. I love the way Nix built this character, and there's a lot about her that was instructive for creating my own protagonist (minus the not realizing how much she is at the whim of others part...although even in those circumstances Clariel feels proactive).
C-A-Harland's avatar
I loved Garth Nix's books. 
You are right, he does a good job of presenting a character that may be caught up in a situation outside her control, but still feels to the reader as if she is doing something about it. Sometimes it is necessary to have a character be carried along by other events or characters, but that doesn't mean they have to be completely passive the whole time. Even having a character choose to bide their time before taking action is a kind of protagging.
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
Absolutely! And I think there are times when it seems appropriate that a character WOULD let themselves get completely caught up and swept along by events sometimes. But this article really pushed me to think about when that is important and when I need to be careful and clear about my character making her own decisions.
C-A-Harland's avatar
Excellent. I'm glad you thought so.
queenofeagles's avatar
That's a wonderful article! Clap  I haven't heard of the term before, but I know the idea. I think this is one of my worst aspects. I know I should make my characters more proactive, but when I look at the situation they are in, I'm like: nah, you are a weak little thing, you can't change that. You're doomed... so they get pushed around by the plot a lot. Lazy suckers. 

I saw that the black magician trilogy got mentioned here somewhere. It's true that the main character there hardly has a choice throughout the story (no big choices, that is), but to be honest, I really don't mind it. The main character is pushed into a hard situation she can't possibly get out of. She can do some small things, but nothing that really helps her. It's all a hopeless mess and it kept me wondering how on earth she was going to pull through that. 
cecegrace's avatar
Thank you for the wonderful article.

This is why I am dissatisfied with most "teen fiction" these days. (I hate the label. It implies vampires and kinky crap to most readers.) Many of the authors out there (*cough cough* Stephanie Meyer *cough cough*) create a character that is as thick as a block of wood and then dump them in a situation. The character is rescued by Deus Ex Machina, and not any aspect that was every truly their own.

What truly annoys me is the form of Deus Ex Machina where a character suddenly finds out that "they are a secret member of a royal/wizardly bloodline with superpowers" or "they have become a vessel for some power that has randomly appeared, and they give it up, but we find that they can summon it whenever they wish in book two."
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
Out of my own curiosity, given the direct relevance of your second paragraph to my own story, are there any circumstances under which "member of a bloodline with special magic" does not make you want to retch? Corollary question: is there something specific about those circumstances that are annoying, other than the lack of real rhyme or reason besides "it just has to happen that way"?
C-A-Harland's avatar
I think the key point is what you already pointed out: the fact of "it just happens that way". 
when a character who has done nothing extraordinary throughout the first 50k pages suddenly pops up with a new super power and some wishy-washy excuse as to why, it can get very frustrating as the reader may feel like this has just come completely out of the blue, and the author just threw it in there on a whim.
A better approach is to establish your magical bloodline early on (even if the character is not revealed to be part of it), and start dropping hints throughout. Such as the character being able to do things others can't and unable to explain why. Then when the reveal comes, the reader feels it was inevitable (this doesn't mean unsurprising. An inevitable plot twist can still surprise your readers, it just means that when they look back over the story it will also make sense that things happened that way).

I think what cecegrace is referring to above is the instance where a character just suddenly develops a power right when they need it, with no effort to earn/learn it. And even if for some reason they lose it/give it up, there is still no consequence as it's now "within them" so they can call on it whenever they wish. This makes it feel as though the character has had to work less, and there is less of a threat hanging over them, as the reader will just expect their powers to save them.
cecegrace's avatar
You understood me very well!
AzizrianDaoXrak, as long as you understand the "out of the blue" component as the problem many readers have, I'm sure your story will turn out just fine!
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
Thank you! Just trying to keep things NOT to do in mind as I'm formulating plot and characters :)
cecegrace's avatar
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
Thank you!!! That makes me feel less anxious about how I've built my character, haha
C-A-Harland's avatar
Yes, very good point. Thankfully there are also YA authors who know how to write proactive characters too.
One example that comes to mind is the Divergent series. In book 1 Triss chooses her own fate by joining Dauntless, then works hard at her training, even seeking out additional practice when she realises she is falling behind. Book 2 lets this down a little, as Triss becomes far more reactive and mopey. Thankfully book 3 picks it up again. This is actually a very common factor in trilogies/series and is what leads people to often enjoy the "middle book" the least. Book 1 sets up a character and world, and book 3 resolves it, but book 2 is typically just the characters dealing with the events of book 1 until they can get back on track for the finale.

Agreed. Dropping superpowers on your character at the last minute is very unsatisfying. The way to mitigate this is to allude to it early on, and build up to the main event, so that even if the revelation still comes as a surprise, the reader feels that it was inevitable and has a "ah-ha" moment, rather than a "what the?" moment.
Permutator's avatar
I've only read the first Divergent book, but I wouldn't cite Tris as a shining example of a proactive character. I'd say that being proactive requires a character to have their own "thing" going on—to have not just a personality, but inertia, a direction of their own in which they continue to move in spite of whatever other forces may be in play. These forces may enable them at times, but there must also be times when the character must forge their own path under their own power because no one else is presenting them with an option that will move them in their own direction. That's what makes it their own.

I don't think choosing to become Dauntless was proactive for Tris. She was given a choice, and she took it in the spirit it was given: abandon her family or abandon herself. This choice was enabled by the whole system of that society; it wasn't hers. To be proactive and set herself in a direction of her own, she could have taken another option that didn't require her to make either sacrifice, presumably with its own costs. But as you wrote, a protagonist doesn't have to be proactive 100% of the time. If Tris had simply gone around rejecting every option given to her in favor of her own crazy ideas, it would have just become the Adventure Time episode "Another Way". And besides, she was pretty much powerless to make her own path in that situation.

Rather than a real choice, I view the choosing of her faction as being like the case that Sherlock Holmes has to wait for. It was out of her control, and by forcing her to sacrifice something she cared about, it set her on the odyssey of self-discovery that I'd say is the point of the book. But still, she didn't own that odyssey—she let herself be shuttled through it by Four with occasional aid and interruption by other characters. She didn't always do what was expected of her, but this wasn't her moving in her own direction—it was just her expressing her defiant, individualistic attitude as she moved in the direction she was given. This is when she should have been proactive. The process of becoming Dauntless, of finding out who she was without her family's influence, was an important transformative experience for her, and the fact that she didn't take it into her own hands made her seem shallow and wishy-washy in my eyes, however tough and driven she tried to be.
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