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, heproactively 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.