Is Your Character Acting or Reacting?

Aerial view of two-lane highway cutting through forest with RV driving on it

Writing active characters is difficult. This is partly because passivity is a rather common human condition. However, when we put our minds to it, it’s not all that difficult to come up with things for our characters to do. The real problem lies in confusing action with reaction. We see a lot of activity going on and think this means our character is active. However, activity done in reaction to something else still indicates passivity. Here’s what I mean.

Six years ago I moved out of my family’s house, where I’d been living while battling mysterious symptoms that turned out to be chronic Lyme disease. Years of a downward physical and emotional spiral, during which I could barely work or otherwise function, suddenly began to reverse themselves when I received my diagnosis and began treatment. Meanwhile, I looked around at my life and despaired at what it had become. I couldn’t envision ever being happy again.

Then, due to a hellish juxtaposition of depression and circumstances beyond my control, I found it necessary to return to an independent life more quickly than my health permitted. I didn’t see any other option. So I packed up my car, moved to a different town, and returned to office life. For several years I tunneled my way forward, motivated more by the fear of what was behind me than a clear sense of what I imagined could happen in the future. My steps forward were like trampoline leaps, bouncing from one thing to the next. I was lucky. Despite my crazy path, instinct led me to good friends, a good place to live, good Lyme treatments. Eventually I started feeling better. Eventually I could breathe. When I came out of the darkness, I realized I had the community and skills I needed to dream of and pursue the life I wanted.

About six weeks from now, I’ll pack up my car, move to the other side of the country, and build a new life. Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to live on the West Coast, have my own home, and build a career in the world of words. And now I have that opportunity—an opportunity partly created by me, and partly seized by me when it came along. While this decision is still shaped in some ways by my circumstances (for example, I chose California over the Pacific Northwest because I expect the climate to be kinder to my Lyme symptoms), it’s mostly shaped by a life I freely envision for myself.

What’s the difference between these two scenarios? In the first one, despite my high level of activity, I was reacting to life. I felt rigidly limited, driven in panic to certain options. In the second one, I’m acting out of my own free will. Although I am subject to some of the same limitations, they do not control me in the same way.

An outsider might not know the difference. He or she might look at my seismic life changes six years ago and think that I was a hero, actively fighting for a better life. But (and I don’t say this to downplay all that I achieved at that time—it was pretty amazing) the truth is, I was mostly just reacting. A good universe saw to it that the right lessons were placed in my path, so that one day I’d have the capacity for making a free choice. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend that a story end anywhere on that continuum. If I were editing my life told as a fictional story, I’d tell the author that the climax doesn’t happen until much later, when the character finally decides to do something that she knows she wants to do.

Am I saying that a good story can’t be written about reaction, or that active characters always have to, well, act? No. Some stories are all about reactive characters who finally take those unexpected actions that spring from their own beings. We learn lessons from these characters; we pity them; sometimes we cheer them on. Sometimes, by refusing to act, a character proves to be active. And rarely is a character 100% active or reactive. The key is that the author must recognize the underlying dynamic, in order to understand where the real story lies.