Instead of writing characters who have strong motivations, and who actively go out and try to get what they want, beginning fiction writers often create characters who are passive. In other words, the story isn’t a result of the character’s actions—the story unfolds around the character who reacts to the events but does nothing to try to change their course.
Stories like this can get boring very quickly. It’s difficult to identify with a character who doesn’t want anything badly enough to take action, and when your character doesn’t have a hand in the events that take place, the continuity of your plot quickly suffers.
The first way to tackle this problem, of course, is to look toward your character’s motivations, conflicts, and actions. What do they want? What is in their way? What will they do about it?
But another way fiction writers can tackle a passive character is to weed out passivity and flatness on the sentence level.
I came to this conclusion recently while reading a client’s manuscript. He was aware that his main character was too passive and asked me to help him make his character more active. I immediately started looking at the aforementioned “big picture” solutions. Where could his character be more active in individual scenes and chapters?
But as I kept reading, I realized how much of his character’s passivity was bleeding into each and every sentence. Take, for example, these sentences. (These are my own examples, not actual quotes from the manuscript):
Sam felt something shift inside him.
Sam watched as Lisa struggled out of bed.
Sam turned his attention toward the door.
Sam was still collecting himself.
Sam felt a vague discomfort.
Sam managed to get down the stairs to the front entrance.
Boring! How are we supposed to want to spend 200 pages with that guy?
More importantly, though, notice the weak verbs in these sentences: felt, watched, turned, was, felt, managed to. I think we’re all guilty of using weak verbs from time to time, especially on a first draft. And some of these sentences simply can’t be saved—they are passive by their nature. But notice how quickly some of the sentences change by making adjustments to the verbs:
Sam marched toward the door.
Sam collected himself.
Sam ran down the stairs to the front entrance.
Yeah! Marched, collected, ran. Not perfect, but it’s a start. Now Sam is in motion. He’s doing something. Notice how much more active, dynamic, and interesting he seems, just by changing a few verbs?
In addition to weak verbs, many of the sentences are passively constructed. In these sentences, Sam is not an actor or an agent, but a recipient. For example:
Sam felt something shift inside him.
Now, sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to be reactive, to be a recipient instead of an instigator. But too much of this language and your character will start to feel like a blank slate–someone to whom things happen, rather than someone who makes things happen.
If possible, simply cut out sentences like these. If you can’t cut them (because they’re absolutely necessary), try to at least use these passively constructed sentences sparingly, or see how you can make them more interesting. For example, instead of the vague, passive sentence “Sam felt something shift inside him,” you could write:
Sam’s stomach flip-flopped. Nothing would ever be the same.
Here, we’ve removed the unnecessary filter “Sam felt,” added the more active verb “flip-flop,” and given a more specific description of “something shifted.” Or–hey–we can remove the reference to “something shifting” altogether, creating the sense of a shift for the reader without filtering it through Sam.
Sam paused at the door. He hadn’t thought of that.
Now, we as the readers feel that something has “shifted,” without the writer actually having to say it.
In summary, if you’re having difficulty with passive characters, look at the big picture, but check out your sentence construction, too! You’d be surprised how much more active your characters can be, simply by rewriting their actions on the sentence level.