When I first started thinking about this one particular story I wanted to write, I envisioned the main protagonist as a more "calm", "reactive" type of character. But as I spend more time building the world and fleshing out the characters, I grow convinced that such a protagonist would be boring at best and Mary Sue-ish at worst.

I think an adventurous, explorer of a protagonist would be much more fun--proactive as opposed to reactive. However, I just cannot fit the character I'm picturing with such a disposition. I decided to balance the two, but turns out that's easier said than done.

If you can think of any such protagonists you've read--or written--that were, in fact, interesting or even enthralling off the top of your head, I'd love to hear about them, and if you have any other suggestions, they're welcome, too.

Here's some info about the character and the world:

  • A fantasy world. The story takes place on a different planet in a different solar system.
  • The protagonist spent a majority of her childhood in a camp that produced child soldiers. This will obviously have had a great effect on her psyche that will show itself in various little idiosyncrasies, but I chiefly want to emphasize the point that "a reactive, unambitious, unskilled person would not survive there for long." (Competition was encouraged, whereas morality was not.)
  • I'm going for a blend between "soft" magic, with more spirituality, and a "harder" magic system with a greater focus on the physical and the individual (2 separate systems).
  • The basic premise is that the protagonist escapes the camp and sets out to explore the world. She spent the first 7-10 years as a normal child, but she was cooped up in a town. Now, she has far more power and independence (from guardians, say) and no obligations, so she's free to be as nomadic as she wants to.
  • I've been toying with the idea of her main goal being to understand her body, her mind, and the world around her completely (mixes really well with the power I'm going to give her), but that tells me surprisingly little about her personality.

The second and last points in particular are what made me want to give her an "adventurous", proactive disposition.

To clarify the question: I have trouble trying to balance the proactiveness of a protagonist recently freed and about to explore a new, alien world with an introverted, traumatized character that's neither mischievous, nor optimistic, nor cheerful, nor any other trait that'd facilitate drive (but she also isn't depressed). Even her core/primary desire lends itself to the life of a hermit, which is most certainly not what I'm going for. I am looking for suggestions on fixing that (or, at least, was; four hours of brooding finally gave me a bit of a breakthrough). At the same time, I want to avoid the "jaded", "battle/life-hardened", tropes that some protagonists display; I hate that. My protagonist is young and, despite a violent history of inhumane training (for the contemporary era, anyway), is only beginning her journey and still has many lessons to learn.

(Bad question, I now realize, in the sense that there's no easy correct answer. I promise to do better next time!)

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    – user
    Apr 14, 2018 at 6:32
  • @MichaelKjörling Re-reading the post, I see what you mean. I'll try editing it, though I've since solved the issue for myself. But, as you said, it's no definitive answer--rather, something that works for me, so others' input is still valuable and appreciated. (Bad question. Sorry!) Apr 14, 2018 at 11:50

5 Answers 5


Story is driven by conflict. Conflict is driven by character desires.

Conflict is a struggle between a character who wants something and the things that are preventing them from getting what they want. If a character has nothing that they want, then there isn't anything to put them in conflict about. Without conflict your story has no tension, and without tension you will have difficulty holding your readers interest.

If your character's goal is to understand their body, mind, and surroundings, then you need something that is actively opposing that understanding. And it's not enough to make the task difficult - you also need a strong possibility of failure.

It's possible to make a reactive character that readers are interested in. But it's problematic for protagonists.

Proactivity is one of the main character traits that makes readers interested in a character. It's not the only one - a sufficiently competent and sympathetic character can get by without too much proactivity. But the protagonist of a story is the one who's actions are carrying the plot forward. If they're not taking action then you either have no plot, or they're not the protagonist.

The Writing Excuses podcast has an excellent episode on the topic of creating engaging characters (with a follow-up devoted specifically to character proactivity) that I heartily recommend.

  • Proactivity also makes a character more sympathetic by default. This is one reason why people often whitewash the deeds of sympathetic but villainous characters; usually what happens is the characters are very proactive in their goals and humans are psychologically drawn to proactivity. Jan 7, 2021 at 1:46

Since everyone is set on a proactive character, let me present the reactive choice as at least viable.

The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings are anything but proactive. They would like nothing better than to sit in their holes and smoke pipeweed. Frodo has no desire whatsoever to be the one taking the Ring to Mount Doom. "I hope that you may find some other better keeper soon" he tells Gandalf (LotR I 2). Knowing full well where they're going, the hobbits are content to let Gandalf and then Aragorn lead the Fellowship, make decisions, etc. Frodo only becomes a "leader" when he leaves the Fellowship, and that choice is compelled by Boromir. He constantly says that he "has to" do whatever - meaning he does not feel he is making a choice. If he had a choice, it would have been someone else on this quest, as far as he's concerned.

The Lord of the Rings works precisely because at its centre are simple folk, who do not seek to be heroes, but recognise the absolute necessity of an action, and go do it. And all the while, what they want most is to come home safe, and live happily ever after. It's just that they need to do this thing so there is a home to come back to.

What is needed for a calm reactive character do get out of his comfort zone and go do things is the world pushing, compelling them to do things. Their choices must be limited to "act" or "bury your head in the sand". If "do nothing" is a viable option, such a character will do nothing.

So it's a question of how you structure your plot, what is happening in your world. For the plot to be interesting, action needs to happen. The less the world compels action, the more proactive your MC would need to be.

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    The companions in The Lord of the Rings are proactive. They don't sit around and wait for Sauron to come pick up the ring. They make a plan to destroy the ring and act on it. They preempt Sauron's actions and foil his plans. That's the definition of being proactive. – Proactive doesn't mean that a character has to actively seek out problems that they wouldn't have if they had stayed at home. A proactive character does not have to like adventure or solving their problems.
    – user29032
    Apr 14, 2018 at 11:33
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    @Cloudchaser the companions are proactive. But Frodo, the MC, is pretty much the least proactive among them (excepting Sam, perhaps). He isn't the one making the plan, he isn't the one leading. Apr 14, 2018 at 11:35
  • Frodo certainly very much doesn't want this adventure, and he is strongly under the damping influence of the ring, but the book isn't about Frodo. The Hobbit was about Bilbo, but The Lord of the Rings is about a group of people who attempt to destroy the ring. The protagonist here is not one person but many, and as a whole they are proactive.
    – user29032
    Apr 14, 2018 at 11:44
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    @Galastel I think this is an excellent answer and an excellent distinction; the "world" can indeed force the MC into action through no logical choice to do otherwise. A man does not have to be "proactive" in taking down gangsters, but if they kidnap his friend and law enforcement is corrupt, he is forced to react with some kind of action (or there is no story). Basically the plot of "The Equalizer" in which ex-CIA McCall strongly avoids violence, but is forced into it by gangsters brutally victimizing his (platonic) coffee-shop friend. He 1st tries to solve the problem w/o violence but fails.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 14, 2018 at 12:41

In reality, many people are calm and observant, and in literary fiction, which is concerned with a realistic portrayal of contemporary society, showing their experiences can be a valid endeavour, but

in genre fiction, readers expect characters to be proactive

and take matters into their hands.

We read genre fiction, because we want to experience an adventure and because we want to see people be courageous, in a way that we aren't.

Genre fiction is utopian, in that its protagonists have only one problem, they attack it, and they vanquish it (or fail in a grandiose manner). It stands in stark contrast to real life, where problems are numerous, are often unsolvable, and our struggle against them is mostly futile and always banal.

  • I think it's a good point. Not sure who voted this down - maybe they'll be back to explain. Apr 14, 2018 at 10:08
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    @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere It suppose it was one of the people who oppose the distinction between literary and genre fiction. See the comments, part of which were moved to chat, under this answer.
    – user29032
    Apr 14, 2018 at 10:25
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    I wouldn't say that in genre fiction the protagonists only have one problem. Look at Song of Ice and Fire: people have so many problems, they don't know which one to address first. (They tend to address the minor problems, while completely ignoring the big one, creating even more problems along the way.) Apr 14, 2018 at 11:22
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    @Cloudchaser I don't think that distinction applies, I could say my real life only goal is "happiness" and all my other problems are derived from it. I did not vote you down, but I disagree that fictional protagonists have only one problem. In fact, the best fiction seems to have them motivated to achieve some external ("real world") result, and in the process solve (or fail) an internal ("psychological") issue. The goal is to attain the throne, but doing so he becomes the person he hates. The goal was mercenary (Hans Solo) but in the end he finds true love and becomes a self-sacrificing hero.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 14, 2018 at 12:28
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    @Cloudchaser I guess you can force anything into any narrative you want; I believe it is better to reflect a semblance of real life and have characters with more than one problem and more than one goal. Stories do need a plot which is usually a central problem to solve, but that does not have be the only problem a char has, and their other problems do not have to be related to the central problem; resolved or not they can be character building, or provoking: For sympathy, hatred, admiration. They can be non-villain stumbling blocks in the plot, or instigating problems for the plot.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 14, 2018 at 14:01

I agree with the other answers so far, but I'm seeing less distinction between someone calm and reactive and an adventurous explorer - a juxtaposition of both can work well, and a protagonist whose calm behaviour is a suppression of their more adventurous side, or whose adventurous behaviour is an attempt to return to a state of calm, has a compelling internal conflict from the start.

[The question suggests you might be looking to balance the character traits, but it's going to be the wobbles that are most interesting.]

Every protagonist of a detective story (where the main character is the detective) is reactive - they're responding to a crime - and they will need to be calm to consider the implications of the clues. Every revenge story is a reaction, and begins with the interruption of a state of calm. Sherlock Holmes presented as calm and reactive, and Edmond Dantes - while being a merchant sailor was certainly an adventurous profession - didn't go looking for trouble until he assumed the title of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The details of the story in this question put me in mind of the television series "Kung Fu". There are few protagonists who present as calmly as Caine, and all his external conflicts were reactions.

What's going to make the story interesting is as much about the reasons behind any actions (and, come to that, inactions) as it is about the actions themselves. This character's desire to understand her body, her mind, and the world might not of itself tell you anything about her personality, but the reasons why she wants to do this are going to allow a lot of character definition and development.

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    +1 for Kung Fu, I watched every episode! However, even Caine, as calm as he was, and though he was reacting to injustice, was usually ultimately proactive (unless captured or falsely accused): He decided to act to protect the innocent instead of walking away, he resolved an injustice, etc. He risked life and limb, usually, and sometimes spent much time, out of his sense of right and wrong.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 14, 2018 at 12:16

One thing to keep in mind is that in terms of conflict and moving the story along, a reactive character can work just fine. There's plenty of conflict in trying not to do anything! Many a good work has come from this conflict.

Even in the hobbits example, the very fact that Frodo/Sam/Bilbo/et al don't want to go on adventures at all makes for an engaging conflict. Trouble finds them and they have to deal with it. That's an interesting story in and of itself.

I.e., just because a character is avoiding conflict or being proactive doesn't mean no conflict can occur. Among other things, it's a classic set-up for humor!

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