Tag Archives: writing a novel

Thoughts on Writing – Active Vs Passive Protagonists

Sometimes, when writing or reading a story, we run into protagonists who fall flat. Protagonists who seem boring or uninteresting, and we just can’t figure out why.

One possibility is that they aren’t playing an active role in the story.

It’s tough to avoid. As a writer, you may very well have a plot you want to convey. You want your character to follow the plot so you can show your readers all the cool stuff in your world.

Sometimes, you choose the wrong protagonist.

I’m a big fan of Janice Hardy’s book, Planning Your Novel. One of the things she talks about is choosing a character who has stakes in the story. Who has the most to lose? Who is going to be the most involved? Who has the point of view most interesting for you to tell?

Another thing to look for? Which character can be actively involved for convincing reasons.

One way to find an active character is to examine which of your characters are willing to act to get what they want.

Maybe they want to protect their sister from certain death (Hunger Games), so they volunteer themselves for a near-suicidal death game. Or maybe they want to choose how they die and not leave it to chance, so they attempt to jettison themselves from an airlock (Better World by Autumn Kalquist).

They’ve got to have desires which are being blocked from them. And regardless, they have to try to get around those blocks.

It doesn’t have to be life-and-death situations. Maybe a character wants to find true love, and so they sneak into a masquerade they would normally avoid. Or maybe they want to solve a crime because they’re reminded of how a family member was killed years ago, and they think it’s the same killer. They want to prevent it from happening again, so they sneak into the scene of the crime at the end of the night.

Point is, an active character has something they want. A goal to be achieved.

An active character will take action on that goal. They don’t just let things happen.

(Note: If your character achieves their goal without making it happen because of what they did, the reader is going to feel cheated at the end of the story.)

It can be easy to let the setting and plot drag them along. Really easy. For example: Oh, hey! I’ve been kidnapped and taken to a rebel camp. And they need fighters, so I’m going to join them in battle even though I have no reason to trust them! And guess what, it just so happens that someone I trusted is really an evil evil bad guy, and they think I’m important for some unknown reason… Yeah…an early draft of one of our stories might have sounded a bit like that before we edited it… Acting on personal motives are important. Even when a character is being tossed around by external forces, they shouldn’t just react. They should actively take a role in the events being played.

The nice thing is that a character’s internal conflicts can push them to act against external forces they might usually ignore.

Let’s take a look at the earlier example of a character who wants to find true love. Maybe internally he’s afraid of being alone, and he feels that if he never finds love, he’ll be alone forever. The catalyst could be that a close friend finds a “perfect” love, and leaves the protagonist behind.

Driven by loneliness, this protagonist determines to sneak into a masquerade where he might meet the true love of his life. (He actively makes this choice and then proceeds to try to go to the masquerade).

He doesn’t have to successfully make it into the masquerade. In fact, it might be more interesting if he doesn’t. (Conflict!)

So our protagonist tries to go in the normal route, but he’s not invited. (Why not? Is he of the wrong societal class? Wasn’t invited because he accidentally showed up the host of the house with a super cool invention? These reasons could play an important role in the coming conflict.)

This protagonist has the option to turn back and go home, giving up on his dreams (Leading into a tragedy, perhaps?). Or he could scale the back wall of the manor and sneak into someone’s chambers, planning to slip into the masquerade unnoticed.

Maybe the room is dark, and he thinks it’s empty. He sneaks into the hall and proceeds to the masquerade, moving along with his goals. He is going to that masquerade, and he is going to dance with anyone who will give him the chance.

And maybe, just maybe, his true love will be there.

He’s actively pursuing his goals.

But what if he instead stumbles in on a secret meeting to overthrow the lord of the house… and they threaten to kill him if he doesn’t participate. And hey, since he snuck inside, no one will believe him if he’s caught poisoning the lord and blames the conspirators.

Now that he’s been dragged into a larger conflict that he has no interest in, it’s easy to let a character be buffeted around without acting on their own behalf, which can quickly get boring. Even if he’s forced to be involved, we should still see him act on his internal conflicts and goals.

Back to the story. Our protagonist now has an additional goal: get through the night alive (which might supersede his goal of finding true love–at least for the moment. However, this internal goal is still going to influence his actions).

Maybe his goal now is to poison the lord as the secret group instructed. Perhaps he agrees that the current lord of the house is a scumbag, and the world would be better off without him. (And maybe he discovered someone he has a crush on is working in the group who just recruited him… so double the motivation for impressing them).

Alternatively, maybe he doesn’t want to poison the lord. Maybe he secretly likes the man, and the whole reason he was sneaking incognito into the masquerade was because he wanted a chance to meet the lord without societal rules getting between them.

And that means he now has an additional conflict. He needs to get close enough to the lord to warn him of the plot… without getting caught by the people who recruited him.

Or maybe he just ditches the whole plan altogether and does what he can to get out of the manor and run for the hills. (Downside… this feels unexciting. How does this fit with his internal goal of finding true love?)

Whatever this protagonist does, he needs to make the choice. There are times he may have to react to a situation, but even then, even when he’s forced into a corner, he should still explore options to get him back on track with his internal goals.

It helps if the antagonist of your story is in direct opposition to your protagonist’s goals. A character without conflict isn’t going to be so clearly taking actions to resolve a conflict if there is no conflict to resolve.

Your protagonist needs to want.

What would this example have looked like if our protagonist wasn’t actively taking a role?

Let’s go with the idea that our protagonist still wants to find true love. But instead of choosing to sneak into the masquerade himself, he mopes around until a friend drags him along. While there, he gripes a bit that no one there will interest him, and mostly stands in a corner until a dancer invites him to dance. He takes the invitation without really being interested, only to learn that the dancer really wants him to slip a pill into the lord’s drink.

Here, he has choices. Refuse (and have the assassins after him later), agree to poison the drink (and actually try to poison the lord), or agree (and then try to warn the lord instead).

This is a catalyst point. He’s been dragged into a conflict bigger than himself. But he still has his own internal goals.

The question is, does he stand up for himself? For his goals?

Or does he allow himself to be thrown around between plot points? Does he react to those points? Or does he push the plot points in his own direction?

Does he actively influence the plot?

If he doesn’t, and he doesn’t have a reason to act, then it’s going to be harder to keep him active. Say our protagonist isn’t looking for true love, and he’s just there because the friend dragged him there. Then when the conspirator tells him to put a pill in the lord’s drink, he does so, because otherwise they plan to kill him. But he’s just meandering along, following what everyone else is telling him to do without making any choices of his own.

At this point, the protagonist really needs to be the one to try to poison the lord or warn him. If he steps back and lets his friend do all the work, or if it just happens that the lord overhears him say something about the conspiracy and that saves the day, then it’s not going to be satisfying. Sure, he had the information, but he wasn’t actively choosing to do something with the information he had.

(That’s not to say it can never work. You might have a comedy in which the hero is bumbling along and causes all sorts of elaborate stuff to happen. But would it be nearly as funny if we didn’t know he was actually trying to do something entirely different and mundane?)

The actions a the protagonist takes should influence the events of a story, Some things may be out of their control, and they will react, but at the same time, they should also act per their own motivations.

Protagonists and antagonists work against each other to create a dynamic story with active characters. Side characters with strong motivations can help create plot twists and keep the story from feeling flat. Internal motives are important to driving stories, and helps to create interesting conflict.

I hope you found this post helpful. 🙂

Have you read any stories or run into any problems trying to write a character who just wasn’t being active in the plot?

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Thoughts on Writing – Figuring Out ‘What Happens Next?’

As you may have read in my last blog post, I’ve been working on a new adult, science fiction romance set in the Distant Horizon universe. Which has been… interesting, to say the least. Romances in that particular universe have a habit of not ending well.

However, since I challenged myself to write a romance, and not a science fiction story with romantic elements, that means I’ve got to figure out how to give my hero and heroine a happily ever after with each other. Or at least a happy-for now ending.


Right now I’m working on the climax. I’m in a lovely spot where I’ve figured out what triggers the ending… but not where to go from there.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Quick back story: Tamara is the main character. She doesn’t have powers and she craves stability (and a stable relationship), but secrets bug her to no end. Meanwhile, Cole (the hero), is a telepath working under Mr. Rivera, who has ordered Cole to date Tamara so that he can get close to her best friend, Amy (who has successfully concealed her powers), to see if Amy has ties to a so-called “terrorist” group, Challenge. There’s plenty of secrets surrounding them, which Tamara is trying to unravel.

Got all that?

So here’s the precursor to the scene I’m on.

Tamara figures out that Cole has telepathy, thanks to her long-running interest in super powers. She calls him out on it, and though he physically can’t tell her everything, he gives her enough information that she finally realizes that he has some kind of telepathic block holding him back. While he’s trying to work around that block, Amy bursts into the room. (She’s Tamara’s roommate and doesn’t expect to find them nuzzling). Cole instantly notices that his powers have been shielded. Since Amy was already scanned a while back… and she didn’t show as having powers, Cole attributes this as proof that she has a rare set of powers and that she may be working for Challenge. He runs off to report to Mr. Rivera because he’s worried for Tamara’s safety if Amy is involved with Challenge.

Shortly after their talk, Mr. Rivera reports to his superiors (his actual superiors, he’s a double-agent for Challenge) so that he can try to recruit Amy. But Cole doesn’t know this, so he’s moping around thinking that he’s just sent away the best friend of the woman he likes.

Meanwhile, Tamara goes to Mr. Rivera’s office in hopes of getting information from him about Cole’s strange behaviors. Instead, she finds an empty office with a folder of incriminating evidence on Mr. Rivera’s desk that suggests the counselor is a member of Challenge… along with a note that has Amy’s name on it. Worried that he’s going after Amy, she tries to contact her best friend. After no response, Tamara then contacts Cole to confront him and see if he had any idea that Mr. Rivera was a double-agent. Cole is perplexed, since Mr. Rivera has been his supervisor for the last several years. But he begins to question himself when Tamara shows him her evidence.

This is where I run into problems.

Tamara has just enough information to be suspicious of the government’s motives, but she has no absolute proof. Cole, on the other hand, has long believed that his powers were a result of the plague he survived, and Amy has been rather vocal in her distrust of the government’s recent actions. So when Cole explains that Amy might have blocked his powers, Tamara is not entirely surprised. But she has evidence that, prior to the plague, Challenge was typically a criminal group (and they had super powers), so she’ not ready to trust them immediately, despite evidence suggesting that Challenge might no longer be criminal. If the government has been corrupted, Challenge is not be the bad guy everyone thinks they are. However, if the government hasn’t been corrupted, then Challenge is most definitely the bad guys.

Back to Tamara and Cole.

They could sit around and hope for the best, (but that would be boring and they have enough evidence to be worried for their friend’s safety), they can call the police, or they can investigate on their own.

In order to figure out what should happen next, I needed to look at the whole picture, even that which isn’t going to be shown to the readers.

Let’s figure out what’s going on with Amy and Mr. Rivera, even though we may not see this particular exchange in the story.

First of all, I needed to know what Amy could do to get out of a tough situation. If you recall, she’s a shielder, which means she can block powers. More importantly, shielding is a combination of three powers: life-spirit, radiation, and power steal. That’s a pretty nice combo to have, especially if she has any training. Given that she’s been meeting with her cousin, a member of Challenge who would want her to protect herself, it’s certainly not impossible. In addition, her power blocking skill is coveted by pretty much every group involved.

People want her alive.

Mr. Rivera, on the other hand, does not have powers, but he does know of a ‘key’ that has been telepathically embedded in Cole’s brain that would allow Mr. Rivera to issue commands to Cole… which Cole would have to follow. The particular process could be experimental, though, and may not always work properly (especially if anyone else knows they key).

The question, then, is the order of events after which Mr. Rivera learns that Amy has powers and might be sympathetic to his cause. He might inform someone in his group that he’s going to approach a potential recruit in case he needs backup. Or he might approach her directly. If Amy has a night class, he might wait until she’s done with class and try to talk to her afterwards, if he’s not afraid of scaring her off. (Granted, I’m not sure about taking this route, since a similar scene happens in Distant Horizon).

Or Mr. Rivera might contact Amy shortly after he learns what she can do, and not bother talking with other members of Challenge. He tries to approach her directly, and thus meets with her in a semi-public place to ease her concerns.

As for Amy, she would be skeptical. She knows that the government is trying to weed out people with powers. But she’s also been trying to get involved with Challenge, so she might take risks that she wouldn’t otherwise take.

Let’s say that Amy skips her night class and goes to meet Mr. Rivera at the coffee shop in the student union. She’s in public, so she’s not meeting a stranger in a high-risk situation. But she’ll have to be careful about demonstrating any of her powers. If innocent people notice and she causes a scare, the security involved may just wipe out the whole area and claim the campus was devastated by the plague.

Wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.

Now that we know where Amy and Mr. Rivera are (not in a secret facility, like I initially day-dreamed, though that may happen later, depending on the outcome of this scene), let’s jump back to Tamara and Cole.

If Tamara and Cole call security because they’re worried for Amy’s safety, they’ll be questioned and a search will go out for Amy and Mr. Rivera. If Cole mentions Amy’s powers, Special Forces will get involved and everyone’s chances of surviving gets really slim.

This makes for a difficult happily-ever-after, though it has nice stakes if I can figure out how to get them out of trouble. Amy can fend for herself, while Tamara and Cole could potentially help them escape (not quite sure how yet), unless they go the ‘bad guy’ route and go pro-government, entirely believing Challenge is the bad guys. (This could happen if Amy and Mr. Rivera aren’t careful of what they say).

But if Mr. Rivera has a chance to explain himself first, he may be able to prove that the government has been killing off people with powers, and doing a few other nasty experiments on them, too. Cole, with his telepathy and persuasion powers, would be a perfect test subject for their major experiments, and Cole can’t be certain they would let him go after Mr. Rivera gets captured, even if he complies with their orders (and does he even want to? His life hasn’t exactly been his for the past few years).

If Cole agrees to help Mr. Rivera, they could get Amy to safety, and then Cole has to find some way to stay in the country without drawing attention to himself. Or he could flee altogether.

In the meantime, we have Tamara. She would want to protect Amy and get answers, and she would get a lot more transparency if she leaves with Mr. Rivera. But then she wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on from the inside the way that Amy has. By playing the part of the ‘good citizen,’ Tamara might be able to help other people with powers escape.

But then she wouldn’t have the stability she longs for.

Here we have a sacrifice on either end of the spectrum. Does Tamara flee the country, in which she gets the stability she longs for and a more definite idea of what’s going on? Or does she stay behind to pass along inside information to Challenge and help others escape? How does Cole figure into this equation?

This story is supposed to be a romance, after all, with the two of them discovering that they want to be together.

Maybe Tamara remembers that Amy has a night class, and decides it would be best not to jump to conclusions. Cole asks if she’s had dinner yet, and she hasn’t, so they decide to head to the cafeteria while they wait. But once they get there, they see Mr. Rivera sitting at a secluded table chatting with Amy.

But this feels like it has lower stakes, unless they make a pre-emptive call, only to discover the Amy and Mr. Rivera in the cafeteria, and security quickly descending on them…

I haven’t quite decided how this scene plays out, but I’m another step closer. By looking at the whole equation, the potential actions of each character makes a lot more sense, and gives me more room to play while narrowing the options to a logical path.

So… will they call security? Or will they set out to find Amy themselves?

To be determined.

I hope you found this post helpful. 🙂

What do you do when you get stuck with a scene?

Further Reading:



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Thoughts on Writing – The Little Details Count

My husband, Isaac, enjoys creating houses on the XBOX 360 Sims 3 game, and since my parents are coming up to visit, he decided to create a model of my parent’s house. He created the general layout, placed the furniture, and after fussing with the game to find the proper sized lot so he could include the backyard, he handed the controller over to me so I could add in the little details. Funny thing… I hadn’t realized how many “decorations” this game has. I added a boom box on an end table in the corner of the dining room. I added the chair that sits beside the hallway. I added a shelf-organizer-thing over where the piano should be (no piano, though), and a little phone on the table beside my grandma’s chair. Then I added a couple paintings (posters) for my room, appropriate colored walls, and a clock above the bay window… and a lot of other little things to make the Sims house look more real.

The end result was uncanny. Depending on the camera angle and the placement in the room, the model house actually looked like my parent’s house.

Those little details made it feel real.

A little detail, carefully slipped into a story, can make a world of difference.

Details enhance the world, make readers feel like they are actually there, and reveal the tone of the novel. A lot of my favorites books and movies pay careful attention to detail across various senses. The background detail in the Babylon 5 TV series, particularly whenever they went into seedy areas on the station, always captured my attention. The last time I watched Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on a large screen TV, I was captivated by the snakes and vines in the swamps of Dagobah. Rebekkah Ford’s Beyond the Eyes series always made me feel like I was in a forest, or at a loud dance club, wherever the character happened to be.

Often, you only need a few carefully placed details to inspire a full scene in the reader’s mind.

Take a look at this paragraph from The Multiverse Chronicles draft:

Ten minutes later, the cart topped a hill and revealed a large military camp in the close distance. Trish eyed the rows upon rows of canvas tents, men marching in formation, and packs of wolves running attack drills on wooden manikins.

Of course the reader will see what is directly mentioned within the text.

But what else do they imagine? What else do they see? What do they feel? Do they feel like they’ve been traveling a ways? Do they hear the muffled din of people and wolves interacting, despite not being told how they sound?

Coupled with the rest of the story, a reader’s mind might add other details which were never explicitly mentioned, based on previous experiences with the words involved and the various connotations those words carry.

That’s why choosing to slip in a detail here and there, relevant to the action but never fully stopping the story, can offer a strong boost to your world building. Some stories will use more details than others, but you can choose when you want the reader to “stop and smell the roses” by letting the character say more about the world around them.

Take a look at this section from the intro of Magic’s Stealing:

Toranih kicked off the covers, knife in hand, and hopped out of bed. She waited, just in case the shadow returned, then walked to her dresser, picked up the crystal, and carefully raised the light again.


The dresser was pristine, with only an oil lamp sitting in the dustless corner. A small oak chest at the foot of her bed remained locked with steel. Heavy brocade curtains obscured the window.


No sign of intruders.


So why couldn’t she shake the feeling that someone had been watching her?

We linger on the details of the room as she surveys her surroundings, tension mounting because she thinks someone is there. But how different might it be if she paid only a little attention to these things?

Toranih kicked off the covers, knife in hand, and hopped out of bed. She waited, just in case the shadow returned, then walked to her dresser, picked up the crystal, and carefully raised the light again.


No sign of intruders.


So why couldn’t she shake the feeling that someone had been watching her?

Without the line detailing what she sees (thus “showing” that there are no intruders), we feel like she’s not really putting any effort into her search. She turns on the light, sees no one is there, thinks something’s odd, but moves along. Having extra details, as in the first example, show that she’s not just shrugging her shoulders at the notion. She really is concerned.

However, if you want to do a slow build-up, you might have a character notice something is odd but not pay much attention to why. Then, as they become more and more concerned, they notice more details, which may or may not truly be ominous.

Going back to that Sims house that Isaac created, the downside of that house was that the model wasn’t quite right. There weren’t stairs where there should be. The swings overlooked a creepy ocean instead of another house. The back room looked similar, but not the same. The windows didn’t fit memory, and he used a white bookshelf instead of a bunch of clear storage tubs in the corner for old toys.

As cool as the Sims house was, I didn’t want to look at it from certain angles too long because the house was unsettling.

You can use this mechanic in stories.

For example, a hero coming home after a long time away may find that things have subtly changed. In a horror story, a picture frame that always sits by a lamp may seem a smidgen too far back. In a desolate future, a character may look out over a ruined landscape, able to see a familiar sight here or there, while the rest is in shambles. What remains in place and what does not can affect the tone of the story. Consider the Statue of Liberty in the Planet of the Apes movie.

A little detail in the right spot can make a world of difference.

This can also be used in game creation.

While I haven’t played the game myself, MatPat’s theories on Five Nights at Freddy’s (a popular jump scare game) often references the little details that make the game creepy, such as the fan on the desk. The detail used in these games gives clues into the world’s backstory, all while adding to the nightmarish atmosphere.

When I first played Portal (a puzzle game), I was alone in my dorm room. The empty quietness of walking through the testing chambers had me super jumpy as I expected a turret to shoot me at every turn. And that game isn’t horror.

If you happen on the one detail that gets under a player’s skin, that one detail will have them on the edge of their seat.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Do you have any favorite details that you’ve read in a book or seen in a movie? 🙂



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