Lessons Learned...The Rejection Way - #2

Friday, January 8, 2010
Proactive vs. Reactive Characters

Here's a topic I had never even considered...until I received a rejection for it. Oops.

So, tell me, other writing friends out there, what drives YOUR characters? Their own wants and goals or an overwhelmingly strong plot? Apparently, the correct answer is their own wants and goals. I received a rejection once because my characters were less proactive and more reactive.

A reactive character is someone who merely reacts to events happening to them in the story--outside influences drive the plot.

A proactive character makes events happen by pushing the plot forward themselves--THEY drive the plot.

Here's a lame example of reactive: A story starts with a woman receiving a hostage note from the antagonist, saying "I have your daughter. If you want her back, leave me a grand in the trash can on Fifth and Vine." Of course, when she gets there, another note has been left, telling her to go to another place...and thus she's pushed along a certain path, forced to REACT to all these events happening to her. This would be a reactive character.

A proactive character would be (and sorry, here's another lame example): A story about a woman who feels her husband might be cheating on her, so she visits this house where she suspects Miss Mistress lives, and gets herself into a whole tangle of problems by pushing her curiosity forward and breaking & entering the place, therefore having to hide in a closet when someone comes home, only to hear who the alleged marriage wrecker is REALLY spending her time with.

Can you see the difference? You can get a better feel of the proactive character's personality because her actions come from internal drive, whereas...how do we really know what the reactive character is like? The Kidnapper is controlling her, making her act how he wants her to, keeping us from seeing her true personality.

It's possible this is merely a subjective issue, and some editors might not feel so strongly about it, not really caring what drives the plot as long as the story is good and characters are distinctive. But I happened to find one editor that did care (go me!).

It's something to think about when submitting your story anyway; do the characters stand out or does the plot, and does the editor/agent you want to submit to prefer plot-driven or character-driven stories?


  1. My stories are character driven. The plot rolls according to their whimes. I love letting them drive!

    Great points!

  2. I have character driven stories now, but I did write a story that was plot driven once and...it was rejected. Surprise, surpise. LOL

    I liked your examples. They really popped out.

  3. Character-driven sounds like the best way to go. With strong enough characters, you can get a pretty amazing plot worked out.

  4. I liked your examples :) They explain your point perfectly. I like to read plot driven stories sometimes but I'm more often a character-driven person. And that's how I write my characters, too. I can see how, though, in that circumstance where it would be very necessary to have a super strong main character that stands out and still makes the story interesting.

  5. Interesting point, very nicely illustrated. Thanks.

  6. I like how well you illustrated this idea. You always hear GMC- but this is another great way to look at it. Good post!

  7. Nice post. This is something I have to work on, giving my characters goals, etc. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. An awesome example of both is the movie "Collateral". Jamie Fox's character is put in an untenable situation that is driven by the killer, yet we find out so much about his character by the choices he makes when he can.

    Maybe you can get away with more plot driven stuff in a suspense/thriller than a romance? I don't know.

    Great examples and post, Linda, as always :)

  9. Sorry about your rejection, but I am glad to see that you got something constructive out of it. That is a very good point that is worth remembering. Thank you for sharing.

    Be blessed,