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  • Writer's pictureSteven Thiele

Writing Tip: Active Characters

Something I’ve been looking at recently when beta reading for other writers is the purpose of a character. What makes a character necessary to the book, and what makes them a worthy part of the book?

Well, I’ve just finished redoing all my central character sheets from my next fantasy project, and I’m hyped up from that. But you all could easily rattle off the standard character roles just as well as I could: Protagonist, Sidekick, Love Interest, Friend, Mentor, Antagonist, Minor Character etc.

The two we’re focusing on today, with the mind of making active characters, are the Protagonist and the Love Interest. I’ve actually covered the Mentor in my Trope Review and had a few tips on making them more robust characters. Check that out for more!

Obviously, we don’t need every one of these characters in the book. And the idea of reducing a character’s role to just “Love Interest” makes me die a little inside since this is a common thing to reduce female characters to be a side piece for the man’s actions.

The protagonist may not be the hero of the story. An example of this is Jorg Ancrath from Prince of Thorns. I only finished the first book since he sickened me as a character, but you know, if you like murderous fourteen-year-olds, then I guess that’s your thing. A protagonist doesn’t have to be the hero, but they have to be the one driving the action.

Too often I see in beta copies a protagonist which isn’t the one taking action. And I’m just quietly screaming. Especially if the protagonist is a woman. Like come on guys, it’s 2020. Are we still doing this?

I haven’t really come across a good book with a passive protagonist. Sure, there are some characters which may not seem to be doing a considerable amount. Perhaps I could contrast Vivenna and Siri in Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel Warbreaker. Siri becomes a queen in captivity and doesn’t seem to be active. Vivenna, by contrast, is the one running around the streets, raising an army. But I don’t think you could call Siri passive, as she’s trying to form alliances with the ‘gods’ of the city.

A protagonist doesn’t need to be physically active to be the one who impacts the story. They just need to have a hand in shaping their own destiny.

That’s about it for the protagonist, now I want to discuss the Love Interest. All of these roles are basically in relevance to the protagonist: the Protagonist’s Sidekick, Mentor, Antagonist, Love Interest. I, however, find the Love Interest title to be irritating, as it seems to imply that’s all the character is. And I would hate to read a book where the Love Interest is just there to show that your grizzled main character has a soft side.

I might go over this in-depth at a later time I think, but a quick overview for now. We’ve all heard of the Bechdel test, right? Two women, alone in a room, talking about something other than a man. Low bar, but you’d be surprised at how few pass that test. This test I raise is the “Sexy Lamp.” Let’s say you replaced your Love Interest with a Sexy Lamp which contributes nothing to the plot but accepts the protagonist’s feelings. Does the plot change? If not, you could be in trouble.

I avoided this in a way which several other Y.A. authors have done, perhaps notably Sabaa Tahir in Ember in the Ashes is making the love interest a dual protagonist. Ember in the Ashes is told from three first-person perspectives: Elias, a young soldier aching to be free, Laia of Serra, a slave seeking to rebel against the empire, and Helene, a friend of Elias. The latter has harboured feelings for Elias but has her own duties to fulfil. By the time we get to book two, A Torch Against the Night, each of these characters, yes, have romantic

attachments, but they have arcs outside of it.

Making the love interests both protagonists is a valid workaround.

In my novel Torchbearer, the first ten chapters alternate between Eli and Jayne until they meet.

And I think that probably summarises it best. Let your Love Interest be a person first, and a Love Interest second. You would probably dislike being referred to as “MC’s S.O.,” but without defining the character before the love interest, that’s precisely what is happening.

After all, everyone is the hero of your own story. And your protagonist and love interest should be no different.

That’s it for today! If you enjoyed this, hit the button below to join the blog so you can stay up to date on all my content! I post every Monday, discussing books, short stories and how to improve your writing. If you want to chat about writing or anything at all, you can tweet me at @sr_thiele. Have a great week!

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1 Comment

Melanie Roussel
Melanie Roussel
Jun 22, 2020

Completely agree with this! I actually wrote a post about the Bechdel test and while it's by no means an indication of whether an overall story is good or bad, it gives you a very good idea what you're doing with your female characters. You're right, this is 2020 people! Let's have more interesting characters both male and female. No one wants to read a character who's getting dragged through the plot. Great post, thanks for sharing!

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