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.

Isabel Allende on Stories

Here is the first paragraph of Isabel Allende's short story "Interminable Life" (The Stories of Eva Luna, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden):

There are all kinds of stories. Some are born with the telling; their substance is language, and before someone puts them into words they are but a hint of an emotion, a caprice of mind, an image, or an intangible recollection. Others are manifest whole, like an apple, and can be repeated infinitely without risk of altering their meaning. Some are taken from reality and processed through inspiration, while others rise up from an instant of inspiration and become real after being told. And then there are secret stories that remain hidden in the shadows of the mind; they are like living organisms, they grow roots and tentacles, they become covered with excrescences and parasites, and with time are transformed into the matter of nightmares. To exorcise the demons of memory, it is sometimes necessary to tell them as a story.

Balancing Your Character’s Choices and Circumstances

 Picture of Temple of Olympian Zeus ruins in Athens

Nature versus nurture. Fate versus the will. Powerlessness versus responsibility. Human beings try to puzzle out how these pairs of opposing concepts can coexist. How much can we control? How much should we try to affect outcomes? How do we react when bad things happen?

These perennial questions about the human experience are integral to stories. The best plots strike just the right balance between a character’s choices to act and the circumstances to which he or she reacts. But finding that balance is rarely intuitive. A protagonist dragged along by coincidences, miracles, and rescues—never making a risky choice or taking decisive action—becomes boring and unappealing. On the other hand, a story with no magic or unpredictability at all doesn’t accurately reflect the truth about reality.

Barbara Robinette Moss’s memoir Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter is a remarkable nonfiction example of the balance between choices and circumstances. Moss was born into deep poverty, and she developed facial deformities as a result of malnourishment. As a young teenager, she prayed to become as beautiful as Zeus’s daughter, the goddess of beauty. Then she set out to change her fate, making a list of seemingly impossible goals like having her teeth straightened, having her moles removed, and learning to play the piano.

The resourceful young Barbara worked hard at various jobs to afford her dreams. Still, she often came up short, and kind doctors were so touched by her dogged determination that they cut her deals to remove her moles and fix her teeth. She married twice, had a son, rented a piano, and went to art school. And ultimately, she did become beautiful when she qualified for a free, experimental surgery to reshape the malformed bones of her face.

This true story exemplifies the interplay of the things over which we have no control—life’s good and bad circumstances—and the ability we have to choose and pursue particular courses of action. If our fictional stories incorporate that same interplay, they will deeply resonate in our readers’ hearts.

The Messy Middle

Starting a story is easy, isn’t it? Our fingers itch to get that magical idea onto paper. We’ve written and rewritten those opening sentences a hundred times in our heads, and they stream across our computer screens with the polish of a final draft. We’ve already envisioned the final scene, too, and maybe drafted it in triumphant, memorable words. We’ve figured out which actors are going to play our main characters in the movie version and we know what the music is going to sound like in the soaring last scene . . . oh right, the story needs a middle.

How to Improve Your Writing's Pacing

Tara Sophia Mohr’s “3 Communication Mistakes with Big Impact” addresses three problems in spoken communication: rushing, “shrinkers,” and asking “Does that make sense?” While it probably won’t be hard to identify two of the mistakes in your own writing, you may be wondering if “rushing” applies to written words. Absolutely! Here are some ways to improve our style by avoiding a rushed tone.

There Is No Such Thing as Perfection

 Picture of a weathered red clapboard building wall

I began to dream of being a published author when I was about eight years old. Like most kids, I had big dreams. I wanted to write chapter books like Little House on the Prairie. Like many kids, I had trouble finishing what I started. I’d write five or eight chapters and then lose interest. As I got older, this inability to finish what I wrote continued, even as my expectations grew more realistic. I rarely completed a poem, short story, or other piece.

One year I attended a homeschool writing class taught by a professional writer, who identified my problem with ease. In my student evaluation, she wrote very kindly that my perfectionism was holding me back. Later, when I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, this sentence stuck in my mind: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” However, I didn’t grasp the meaning of all this good advice until I had landed my first job in communications. Faced with writing deadlines that required me to quickly draft copy, then hand it over to a team of editors who slashed through it and returned it to me for revision, made me realize that the solution to being unable to write is to simply write.

Here are some ways you can keep perfectionism at bay during various stages of the writing process:

Accept the revision process.

I think writers have a secret belief that if we approach our first drafts just right, we won’t have to revise. This is an impossible dream. While a lot of techniques can help our first drafts along (brainstorming and outlining, for example), the plain truth is that the goal of a draft is to get words on paper—any words, even words that turn out to be drivel. If you don’t write a first draft, you can’t read it over to see what works and what doesn’t and then revise it into a second draft . . . and a third, fourth, and however many it takes to get it right. Sometimes a draft is disappointingly bad, but this doesn’t mean you wasted your time writing it. Often, there is no way of figuring out how something should be written until we have written it the wrong way a few times.

When you accept that there will be revisions, you give yourself the freedom to simply write without trying to achieve perfection. Although this feels messy, it is also productive.

Allow others into your creative process.

I used to resist letting others read my work before it was finished. I was worried that any comments or criticism would interfere with my creativity. This is a very understandable fear for artists, since inspiration is intensely personal and creativity wells up from the center of being. But after years of editing and being edited, here is what I’ve learned: creativity has a community element. When I share my less-than-perfect writing with others, I get to test out how my ideas are coming across right now; this makes my next revision more productive. I gain the benefit of others’ objectivity about my work. And I’m reminded that my job isn’t to please everyone, but to evaluate all feedback and decide which of it will best help me to achieve my writing objectives.

Be brave! Share your messy draft with a friend, coworker, fellow writer, or the blogosphere. When we bring others into our creative process, the reward is not just good writing, but a shared experience that is bigger than we are.

Stop the process.

Eventually, it’s time to call it a day. Your work is not perfect and it never will be. No work of art is perfect. (Okay, so most of J. S. Bach’s compositions and quite a few episodes of 30 Rock are indeed nearly perfect, but you think you’re J. S. Bach?) Do the best you can, and then push your work out of the nest. Let it be excellent or very good (please don’t think I’m suggesting anything less than that—I’m an editor, after all!), but don’t ask it to be perfect. Now you can move on to your next project, which might be even better than this one.

Authors: Feel Your Feelings

 Picture of aurora in the night sky

When I was a very young wannabe author, I often ran across this piece of advice: Write about what you know. I took this to mean that I should either write ultra-realistically, or go out and have a lot of experiences. These approaches have their merits (consider realists like Henry James or crazy adventure types like Jack Kerouac), but this advice can cause us to miss the forest for the trees.

Sometimes the stories with the least outward realism strike deeply into our hearts. Charles Dickens' characters are bonkers, and his novels are thrill-rides of crazy events. We can’t imagine these stories actually happening. Yet we find ourselves truly loving Dickens’ characters,  and their experiences resonate within us.

Similarly, authors with extremely narrow experience have written insightful stories with broad appeal. (Jane Austen, anyone?) Dorothy Sayers was an academic and ad writer now best known for her sophisticated amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey—a blatantly imaginary character, but just try reading the mystery series without falling in love with him.

Compare this with the experience we’ve all had of picking up a book that fails to hold our attention even though it's obviously well written, with lots of sensory detail and characters doing logical things. What is missing from such a book? What is it that great authors have in common?

The best authors are connected to an inner world that is not just cerebral and imaginative—it is a place rich with feeling. These writers are aware of their emotions, feel them honestly, and transmit that reality into their stories. Sometimes that reality is expressed in fantastic dream sequences, as in Alice in Wonderland. Other times emotional truth is expressed in a humdrum tale. What we recognize when we read these stories is not necessarily their outer garments, but the hearts within.

One of my author obsessions, Charlotte Bronte, combined a Gothic lack of realism with a personal experience that was not only narrow, but frankly depressing. Yet she remains one of the greatest of English writers. This is because she was able to cut across boundaries of class, gender, and language with her perception of what and how human beings feel—starting with herself.

Great authors feel their feelings. Exactly—just what your therapist told you to do! If I could go back and talk to my teenage self, I’d say this: Know your feelings, and write about them.