I read one of those “here are all the mistakes novice novel writers make” blog posts on The Passive Voice that contained something interesting. In a discussion about making sure that your novel has a plot instead of a series of episodes (good advice), Anne R. Allen says that a novelist should “create characters who act rather than are acted upon.”
Now, this is generally a good thing. No one wants a hero who waits for other people to take care of the heroics. Characters who are chronically acted upon tend to be whiny and helpless, and you usually just want to smack them. A glum little vampire wannabe damsel-in-distress comes to mind.
But neither do you want a hero or heroine who miraculously defies all the odds, slays every monster with a brilliant and cunning plan, and saves the princess without knowing a moment’s consternated adversity. Sometimes you need your character to be acted upon, because that’s life. You need give and take; you need those equal and opposite reactions.
There are situations that have no clear answers, with no way for your hero to bust out of his chains using brawn and dashing. Sometimes the world acts on you with all its hell and fury, and you get stuck. You can’t see your way out, and every time you try to struggle out of the quicksand, you make things worse. That’s where character development comes in, and that’s at least as important as having a compelling plot.
Writing a story where the hero’s actions invariably “cause each new event” is unrealistic, and leaves you with a shallow plot and a shallow character. There’s a reason heroes have sidekicks, and it’s not just for comic effect. Heroes have sidekicks so they can learn humility and the limits of their own strength. They learn reliance upon others, responsibility, and compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. That’s where the crux of your story should lie: in the emotional development of someone who thought that they were solely in charge of their own destiny, but who was wrong.
I think this struck me particularly because my main character in SZK, Serdaro, is definitely more often acted upon than not. He is caught in a huge web of evil, grasping, selfish people; of self-interest and anger and violence that is threatening to tear his world into pieces. He is a little tiny speck of dust in a crumbling empire, and he doesn’t feel that anything he’s done is making a bit of difference. Do his actions have consequences? Naturally. Do many of his decisions advance the story? I sure hope so. Will he be put into a situation where he controls the fate of the universe? Yes, of course. But that’s where he’ll show his character, not where he’ll show my plot.
As I said, it’s not bad advice to make sure that your protagonist is at least occasionally heroic. But the pull between action and inaction is the key. That tension between success and failure – how finely you balance that and how high the stakes are…that’s your story. Don’t sacrifice action for meaning. Don’t create a hero who doesn’t feel his flaws. There’s no archetypical comic book superhero in the universe (or any other universe) who doesn’t get stymied once in a while, and who doesn’t have to rely on something other than his own strength to get out of some mess. That’s what captivates people.
So throw a wrench in the works once in a while. Beat up on your hero. Tie him to the train tracks and see what you get. You might be surprised at what you reveal when you subvert the rules and make a strong person helpless. After all, when you’re writing the laws of your own world, every action might have a completely disproportionate and unexpected response.