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In my current writing, I've been having some trouble with the plot, specifically with going from an outline detailing what I need, to an outline detailing how I get there. I think the problem (or at least part of it) might be that I don't have a clear chapter-by-chapter summary for the book. My problem is that I'm having trouble designing this chapter-by-chapter outline.

I'm working with the following structure:

  1. Character has a motivation/goal.
  2. Character faces building conflicts in the way of that goal.
  3. Something big goes wrong for the character, inducing a possible cliffhanger.
  4. Chapter ends.
  5. Next chapter: Character reacts to big disaster.
  6. Character adjusts to deal with the problem.
  7. Character makes decision and takes action (or doesn't).

My problem lies in step 1. In my very first chapter, my character is entirely passive. He is in fact part of a large crowd that is being evacuated. I cannot seem to find a goal he is actively striving for at this time.

Note: I realize passive characters is not something readers greatly want, which is why I will also be scanning my outline for other instances of it, and fixing them. Regardless, there will be instances where the main character is passive.

Question: How can I determine the goal of a scene/chapter when the main character is entirely passive? Can I even do it? Do I need to make him active somehow?

Disclaimer: I realize that there is a certain level of disapproval on this site towards structures (from some people). Please keep in mind the question is not about the structure. It's about finding a goal for a passive character.

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I think maybe you need to look at the difference between being "passive" in the sense of not making decisions or "passive" in the case of not caring. The situation you've described seems like your character is the first kind of passive. If he's also the second kind of passive, things will be trickier.

But if it's just the first kind of passive... if it's an evacuation, presumably it's an emergency situation, so his goal is survival. Or if he's not that worried about himself, maybe his goal is the safe and efficient evacuation of others. Or maybe it's the preservation of his fragile dignity while going through this process. Or maybe the evacuation has thwarted whatever his original goal was in being in the place, and his new goal is figuring out a way to get things back on track.

If it's the second kind of passive, where he just doesn't care, you may need to look at your determination to use this structural approach. I know, you said you didn't want to get answers like that, but, really, if your structure is based on characters caring and you have a character who doesn't care, then you need to change either the structure or the character, right? Which would you rather change?

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The motivation doesn't have to be massive or book-spanning. As Cole correctly notes, it could simply be "getting to the door." Or "not getting an elbow in the eye." Or "not choking from the smoke" (or whatever the problem is that's causing the evacuation).

Or conversely, maybe your character's goal has nothing to do with the situation he's in. Maybe he's passively accepting being herded because he's desperately trying to get his husband on the phone and frankly doesn't care where he's walking or who hears him, and the real goal is to reach his husband, who is on the other side of the city and also affected by the evacuation.

So the goal of the scene may be to set up the larger conflict of the book, which is "Hero and Love Interest are separated and have to get to each other by the end of the story," even if the actual events of the scene are moving macguffins.

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You don't want your character to be passive throughout your novel, but I don't see any issues with him being passive in the first chapter if that sets the scene. A consistently passive or reactive character is hard to make compelling, but even the most proactive person sometimes finds herself in situations beyond her control. I just wouldn't extend it for too long if you decide to go that route.

  • I agree. However, the question was about finding the goal in such a situation. :) – Thomas Myron Sep 1 '15 at 20:45
  • One of the questions... :) – Chris Sunami Sep 2 '15 at 13:42
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How can I determine the goal of a scene/chapter when the main character is entirely passive?

This hugely depends on what kind of a book you're writing: genre, audience, message. And the kind of a character you're trying to create. If becoming active and bold is part of his character arc, his goal in the first scene can just be for the evacuation to go okay and to get home as soon as possible. If he has a dog, he might have a goal of returning in time to feed or walk it. Or if he has family, maybe he's missing some important event and evacuation becomes a conflict for his goal of not missing that event. Or he may be late for work, date, what have you. Possibilities are quite endless, since his goal doesn't have to be tied to the evacuation. Rather make it an obstacle.

Can I even do it?

Yes, by turning the evacuation in an obstacle and giving him a goal that has nothing to do with it.

Do I need to make him active somehow?

Yes. Even if he's stuck doing nothing, waiting for things to happen. He can be active in his head - frantically worrying that he's late wherever, imagining worst-case scenarios if he misses whatever. Finally, he can be texting or making calls, which will also give you opportunity to start introducing him to the reader.

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Ask yourself who this novel is really about. If it's about the main character, presented in chapter one as part of a crowd, you for sure want to make him more of an active agent in the story. If it's about a whole bunch of people and you change from chapter to chapter, it's fine to make him a little more passive.

Either way, you're thinking of this in the wrong way. Your character already has a goal and is already part of an active plot. Right now, as you present it, your character is in the middle of a mass evacuation, and so, the central conflict for your character is how is he going to be evacuated.

Your main character doesn't have to lead the evacuation, or be the only one being evacuated, to be active during this event. Turning him from active to passive is actually rather easy. Simply shift the focus of the chapter from the crowd to the individual person (something you should be doing already if he is your main character).

We should feel, when reading your story, close to your main protagonist. Let us know how he feels in regards to the evacuation, let us see the world through his eyes. This doesn't mean you have to write it in first person, you can try free-indirect discourse as a method of establishing a close relationship between the protagonist and the reader, or you can simply have the third person narrator stick closer to the protagonist than any other person.

Whichever way you chose, you want to make sure that you're following the protagonist as they attempt to evacuate. Your protagonist should be our window into this world, we should feel as if we're following him as he's attempting to evacuate. Consider letting us know his thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions, senses, anxieties, backstory, or anything else. Doing all of these things will likely turn the story from passive to active.

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From the information you have given above it is completely understandable to have a character like that in the first scene. Passiveness can be state of mind given a period of time. Now as you mentioned evacuation you can describe the scene and other people's reactions and how your protagonist is immersed in these things and so decides to have no personal goal on his or her own. You could describe his or her panic and the sense of alienation or anything you feel relevant that you can flesh out in the plot later on. There is no need for the character to always be active as in deciding an activity and they can be pretty passive. However, passivity as in complete inertia is pretty traumatic or well not believable and somewhat denies the character a basic human trait so I would avoid that entirely.

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Characters need to separate themselves from the crowd at the right time. For instance, if there is a tsunami, or something like Hurricane Katrina, most people will behave more or less alike. And in most cases, it's perfectly ok for characters to be "passive," in the sense of not standing out from the crowd. At such times, everyone's goal is just to survive, and your characters need not be different from anyone else.

It's what happens "afterward" that distinguishes one character from another. For instance, how does one deal with the wreckage brought about by Hurricane Katrina after it has gone away? One character will act with resentment, another with resolution, etc. It's when things have "settled down," that characters get to show themselves by starting to set (and pursue) goals.

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