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I'm just getting into writing and while reading about it I've found a lot of topics which claim that reactive protagonists are generally frowned upon.

Reactive: Acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it.

I'm having trouble understanding why such a protagonist would be unacceptable.

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    I am not even sure where is the line between reactive and active. Because everything is a reaction. – rus9384 Oct 25 '18 at 7:16
  • @rus9384 I am struggling with this also. Newton's third law is hard in writing. – Valrog Oct 25 '18 at 7:23
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    @rus9384 I think it's reactive vs proactive, not against active. Is the protagonist saying "I want this to happen, so I will do that to try and cause it", or are they saying "This has happened, so I will have to do that". Proactive means trying to cause events ("For every action") while Reactive means responding to someone else's cause ("There is an equal and opposite reaction") – Chronocidal Oct 25 '18 at 14:46
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    @rus9384: Preserving the status quo can be very exciting, if structured correctly (e.g. stop the invaders from sacking the city, stop the assassin from killing the VIP, stop the spy from stealing the papers). – Kevin Oct 27 '18 at 0:53
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    There's a lot of realism in reactive characters. If they take actions based on things that they've experienced, they have a motivation. If they do everything proactively, they're just taking actions for no reason. – AJFaraday Oct 29 '18 at 10:30

14 Answers 14

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I'd say the question of Active vs. Reactive hero is as much a question of how you present events, as of what is actually happening.

Let me give you an example: Frodo, the main character of the wildly successful Lord of the Rings, can hardly be said to have actively chosen the quest of the Ring. His initial reaction to learning what he has in his hands and what must be done with it is

'I do really wish to destroy it!' cried Frodo. 'Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me?' (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book I, chapter 2 - The Shadow of the Past)

"I wish the world to be saved, preferably by someone else". After which, he immediately offers the Ring to Gandalf. And later he offers it to Aragorn, and to Galadriel - anyone who might be, in his opinion, "better suited" to the quest.

As long as there's a Gandalf or an Aragorn to follow, Frodo is content to follow - let someone else lead him to the end of his quest. Once he's alone, it turns out he hasn't spent too much time looking at maps, trusting Gandalf to lead him. Not exactly a pro-active attitude, is it?

But every single time Frodo is offered a chance to turn aside and abandon his quest: on Caradhras, on Amon Hen, he chooses, actively chooses to go on doggedly with this quest he never wanted.

You could say that the situation has been forced on Frodo, and he merely reacts to it. It's not much of a choice, is it, if the alternative is watching the world go up in flames? But at the same time, Frodo's choice, his decision, is active. Where everybody else chooses "sorry, I can't", Frodo chooses "I will". Which is both a heroic and a realistic situation, if you think about it.

Which brings me to what I've been trying to say: the situation in which your protagonist finds himself in can be entirely forced on him. But within the situation he finds himself in, the protagonist needs to be making active choices. The choice to go on must be an active one, the alternative needs to be considered, if only to be discarded. The protagonist should be at least somewhat proactive in trying to achieve his goal, even if the goal was thrust upon him, and he would let others do as much as possible.

To achieve this, offer your protagonist chances to turn aside, strip him gradually of help, force him to act. He doesn't need to be the kind of character who permanently seeks to be active - a situation that would pull him out of his comfort zone would do that. The moment he's actively answering questions like "whether to proceed", and "how to proceed", he's active.

A simple example: running away from a collapsing building is a reaction. Helping someone else is a choice. Figuring out how to get out - also a choice. It's all about how you frame it. (And yeh, everybody who's been explaining about how it's important that the protagonist reads as active - I agree completely.)

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    +1. That's a good distinction; I am not sure I'd call actively choosing to continue "proactive", but it is definitely making up your mind to take the risk of going on. It isn't thinking of a strategy to succeed, but it is taking a risk; and in Frodo's case, an altruistic risk. He could have chosen to just not believe the world would be destroyed, and returned home to live a comfortable life. – Amadeus Oct 25 '18 at 15:16
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    Glad to see a specific example of this posted; I'd add that "reactive" and "(pro)active" don't need to be mutually exclusive. Plenty of fiction has the main characters start off reactive and only switch to active/proactive halfway through when they've gained confidence or knowledge they didn't before. – Izkata Oct 25 '18 at 18:17
  • It was a hard choice, but in the end I've decided to go with this answer. "Within the situation he finds himself in, the protagonist needs to be making active choices," made me analyse the situation from a different perspective and give some deeper understanding of writing characters in general. – Valrog Oct 26 '18 at 7:19
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Protagonists come in many types and many degrees. One trait one expects from the protagonist is that he or she will act to do something, decide something - whatever is required by the plot or other characters.

Some situations no one can control or influence - being at sea on a small yacht and a hurricane crosses your path. Such a character would do something within the confines of the yacht, trying to improve chances of survival, but defeating the storm is impossible. The greater the force with which one contends, often the more limited are their options.

What one usually tries to avoid is a character who does nothing and is simply acted upon - passive protagonists need something to do. That said, one of my favourite novels is Magic Mountain, where nothing seems to happen aside from a character going to an asylum (hospital) to visit a friend, getting sick himself and eventually leaving. Thomas Mann takes characters you don’t have to really like and weaves a story where the action is so trivial as to seem almost nonexistent. It is a character study and a commentary on the medical care of the time - and simply enthralling.

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    Is a reactive character always a passive one? I would say no, but I'm not too sure. Perhaps this is more suited as a separate question. – Valrog Oct 25 '18 at 7:11
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    A great counter example would be "The Trial" by Franz Kafka. The protagonist K is being acted upon most of the time, excellent read. In fact, it is rather typical for Kafka to have passive, somewhat weak protagonists being thrown into a world too difficult for them to understand or navigate. – Tim Hallyburton Oct 25 '18 at 13:46
  • Another good example of a somewhat passive protagonist is the movie Jupiter Ascending. The main character of that movie is almost a professional damsel in distress. – T. Sar Oct 25 '18 at 18:43
  • Check out Chance, the gardener in the amazing book (and movie), Being There. He's almost the definition of passive. – Joe Feb 20 at 6:04
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One example I can think of for a truly reactive protagonist is Arthur Dent in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. For the most part, he is basically dragged around as events happen around and to him. He even remarks on it in the second book:

"No, I'm very ordinary," said Arthur, "but some very strange things have happened to me. You could say I'm more differed from than differing."

In this case, though, I'd say that it's done intentionally as a juxtaposition against the wild and exciting universe for comedic effect. If you were to take that story and tell it as a serious dramatic novel, I'd imagine many readers wanting to shake Arthur by the shoulders and yell at him to actually do something.

7

I think we are dealing with a scale of greys here. It's true, as Matthew Dave mentions, that the audience will expect the protagonist trying to resolve at least one of the major conflicts in the story arc.

In some genres, e.g. fantasy, the protagonist is usually the one who's supposed to do the final big leap ahead, willingly putting everything at stake in the final fight. In those situations, you don't want to have a pushover-protagonist: one who does things just because he's forced to do them, or his mentor suggests it, or again there is no other choice.

It's true though that in most genres the situation is not so extreme. In a sci-fi novel I'm writing, I'm struggling with the topic of agency: I have a female character who would like to be active, but can't since she usually misses a lot of information of the world she's in, and can't help being pushed by other more knowledgeable characters (maybe related question).

In a more general case, reactiveness isn't inherently a bad thing. After all the protagonist can't be the main cause for all the conflict in the plot - there are the other charaters, the antagonist, and the whole setting to account for. In some situations, I'd say being reactive makes more sense than being active. A character who always takes the initiative regardless of the event will come off as brash, presumptuous or know-it-all.

It's true that protagonists are expected to take a certain amount of action later in the novel; e.g. when a major conflict is revelaed, the protagonist is expected to resolve it in an active way. Activeness in this sense is more like "I want to find a solution" rather than "I'm forced to find a solution".

TL;DR: Reactiveness (unlike total passiveness) is not a bad thing; but it can be ill-suited to some situations or events in the plot. In the end, though, there are a lot of different stories to tell, and it's up to you to decide what kind of it'll be, so take everything with a grain of salt.

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    This makes sense to me, reactive and passive character don't have to be the same thing and a reactive character is still allowed to get things done. – Valrog Oct 26 '18 at 7:21
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I would argue, no, a reactive protagonist is not necessarily a "bad" protagonist. For example, take the protagonist from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

To summarise...

Covenant is plucked from his terrible life and thrust into a fantastical, alien world. It is in that alien world where he discovers that, due to physical deformities caused by his leprosy, he is an avatar of a historically important figure.

Throughout the series, and especially through the first three novels, Covenant is pushed into situation after situation of which he has little to no control over.

What makes Covenant a compelling protagonist is that all throughout the novels, even though he has seemingly little control over his circumstances, he maintains his agency. Covenant makes good decisions, he makes bad decisions, he commits heinous crimes, and he makes tremendous sacrifices. There is never a moment where Covenant is powerless to act; even if his moment to moment decision making results in inaction. To augment Rasdashan's answer, even though Covenant is always reacting to his environment, he is never passive.

7

All of these answers are correct, but the corollary issue is if the protagonist is too passive, another more pro-active character will steal the story.

Working as Intended

This might be exactly what you want. Moby Dick, Amadeus, and Sherlock Holmes use POV characters to frame a more interesting character's story. They sit around passively shocked or enthralled by the more interesting character's rise and fall. They provide a moral and emotional touchstone that anchors the reader, working like a greek chorus to say what is "normal" outside of the sensational leading character.

Coming-of-age stories work in the same way. A story about everyday-courage, or everyday-tyranny, can work better narratively when discovered through the eyes of an innocent. The POV character has dramatic uncertainty over the conflict, and goes through an emotional arc which the leading character doesn't show.

Fractured Fairytales

The (too) passive protagonist becomes a big problem in "heroic" stories about good and evil, where the villain instigates everything, the villain has all the plans, and the villain gets all the good speeches – the villain is the main character, we are being told his story about his rise and fall.

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It gets even worse with clichéd grim-dark brooding anti-heroes who have nothing to their character than the ability to super-punch/super-outgadget/super-runfaster/super-shootthegun… oh, and a dead wife/daughter/sister/parents who were fridged before the story even began. This protagonist is too passive. He has no goals, no life of his own, no story to interrupt. He is boring. He only reacts to the villain's plans, that's the only reason he is there. He is just a foil to the more interesting villain.

At the end of a "broken" heroic story, the reader remembers the unique villain and forgets the cookie-cutter hero.

Damsel in Distress

Another "bad" example is a damsel-in-distress who is kidnapped by a villain, then rescued by the hero who tells her to stay put, then the villain kidnaps her again because he knows the hero is in love with her, and the hero snatches her again in a boring sports ball game of pass-the-woman. She screams and falls off buildings, events happen to her and around her. She is at the center of the story, but she is essentially an inanimate MacGuffin that is strategically transported from location to location as the plot demands, but has no agency or character arc of her own.

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The adoring damsel might seem like a Watson at first, a "normal" character through which we are meant to see the fantastical hero and the maniacal villain, but if she has no agency of her own readers will start to see her as an annoyingly passive object that looks pretty and is used as a plot crutch. Fans may even want her to die because she serves no purpose than to be a handicap to the hero.

Who Makes the Plot Happen?

In contrast, Superman™ was originally a power fantasy for children, but it was adapted for cinema shorts he needed to appeal to general audiences. The main character shifted from reactive-only Superman to Lois Lane, an extremely pro-active reporter who chases villains for interviews and always looks behind the curtain to expose what they are up to. Villains hate Lois Lane. They tie her up and leave her to die because she is smart and dogged and will expose their plan, not because she is somebody's girlfriend.

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Lois is reckless and eventually needs to be saved (not all the time, just special occasions when Superman has to expose himself), meanwhile she actively complicates her own conflict by sabotaging Superman's ability to protect her. Every time she misdirects Clark Kent, she unwittingly sends her rescuer in the wrong direction. The show is called "Superman" but it's Lois Lane who drives all the action forward. Superman just reacts. He reacts to villains, he reacts to Lois. When you watch them you actually feel sorry for Superman, well not really, he has superpowers but he is just a boring guy from Kansas.

In current films she is a do-nothing passive girlfriend who carries the emotional water so Superman can be even more portentous, but the original Lois is ridiculously un-passive (she accepts no situation as is) and pro-active (really, you should watch the Fleischer Studios cartoons, she is a psychopath) so the stakes can be raised several times before Superman shows up "in the nick of time".

5

Ultimately it depends on what it is you're going for, but most would agree that if the protagonist isn't the reason for the final major conflict being resolved (not necessarily the last big fight, but whichever conflict, being it physical, emotional, or interpersonal) in some capacity it will make people wonder why the character is being treated like the centre of the conflict.

  • Surely a reactive character can influence the story in some way, even if it's not through them taking the initiative, but merely responding to circumstances. – Valrog Oct 25 '18 at 7:14
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    @Valrog Exactly. The main point is that while they may not be responsible for most of the story's happenings, they need to influence the ending in some way or... why focus on them? – Matthew Dave Oct 25 '18 at 9:14
  • @MatthewDave I could see the argument for making a character a protagonist even if they were passive, if they were the thread linking multiple otherwise unrelated concepts. That said, what we would have there is multiple short stories with multiple other protagonists that happen to happen in proximity to each other - not necessarily all that interesting - like a series of Dr Who where The Doctor didn't actually play a role other than visiting each location and simply observing. It would be far less interesting - as you say, why focus on them? – Baldrickk Oct 25 '18 at 12:48
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This is just about the psychology of what makes a good story. A person is not a hero if they fight because they are forced into the fight. A person did not solve their problem if the solution just happens and they made no decisions leading to the solution of it. They just survived until the problem was resolved naturally.

You can write those kinds of stories, but they tend to not satisfy readers. The only reason instructors, agents and publishers don't like them is because readers don't find those stories satisfying or entertaining.

Typically, the Three Act Structure contains a Setup, a Middle, and a Conclusion.

The Middle is usually divided into two parts for the hero(es), a Reactive phase first (dealing with whatever the problem dealt them) and a Proactive Phase (having learned enough to start planning ahead and making choices to solve the problem).

If you look at this as four parts, each part is roughly equal in length, give or take 10% of the full story length.

Note that the 3AS is NOT an "invention" some professor dictates is the only way to write a story. The 3AS is science, derived from analysis of thousands of successful stories to find out what they have in common, and therefore what makes a story popular. The 3AS and its pacing and nature of the writing in each phase is the result of this distillation.

Of course it is necessarily averages and good stories can deviate from the 3AS in any respect, or perhaps leave some things out. But it does tell you the shape of what readers like the most and consider to be "good stories".

So if you want your work to be liked and considered a good story, then a purely reactive protagonist is, indeed, an inherently bad thing. In a good story, the hero makes a brave choice, risking something important to her (perhaps even her life), to accomplish something that is good, that is worth more to her than the risk of loss. If she doesn't eventually make that choice, then chances are, people will not like the story, will not find it entertaining, will not recommend it, and if they paid for it, may try to get their money back. They read to imagine themselves as the hero, nobody wants to imagine themselves as a passive punching bag.

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From the Writing Excuses podcast episode 13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

Brandon: Give us a quick definition, then, of main character.
Howard: To me, the main character is the person through whose eyes we are seeing the story.
Brandon: Okay. And protagonist? Quick definition.
Mary: The protagonist is the character who is taking the action to move the story forward.
Brandon: And hero?
Dan: The person who gets to do all the cool stuff.

The protagonist is the character whose decisions shape the story.

If they have no agency to control the direction the story is taken then they're not the protagonist, by definition.

This is not to say that the hero can't be reactive, though. They can be forced to act, as long as they get a choice in which action they are making. They need to have agency. (If you want an example of a character who is reacting to a threat, but still has agency, just watch Die Hard)

When the viewpoint character is being pushed from threat to threat by the villain without ever having a chance to control what happens next, that's when they stop being the protagonist and start filling other roles in the story.

Your protagonist does not need to be the viewpoint character.

Using a secondary character as the viewer perspective of the protagonist is a long literary tradition seen in Sherlock Holmes, The Great Gatsby, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and many, many others.

You do not need one single protagonist.

An ensemble story takes a group of people and uses them collectively to move the story forward. (Oftentimes one or two characters will have more agency than the rest, because writing a story with half a dozen leads is hard, but a true ensemble story does not need that.) They're collectively moving the story forward, so they are the protagonist collectively.

Even when you don't have an ensemble cast, you still don't need one single protagonist. When Frodo is having Gollum guide him do Mordor, he's the protagonist. When he gets poisoned, Sam becomes the protagonist. Once they arrive at Mt. Doom, Frodo becomes the protagonist again (even if Sam doing most of the work). Very briefly at the end, Gollum becomes the protagonist. As long as you the writer knows who the protagonist is at all times, you'll be fine.

  • I've found these sorts of questions often revolve around how the term 'protagonist' is defined, as a lot of writing advice uses mutually-orthogonal definitions. – Roger Oct 26 '18 at 20:56
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    @Roger: Exactly! which is why I sourced the definitions I was using. – Arcanist Lupus Oct 26 '18 at 21:08
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People want things

A character is both more plausible and interesting if they have goals and desires which move them to a significant enough degree that the plot is impacted by those desires.

Everyone is reactive to the situations around them; it would be unrealistic if your characters didn't react and adapt, but...

People who sit around and wait for the things want to just come to them are boring

It is important, if you want to keep your audience engaged, to not be boring.

3

It's difficult to identify with, or care much about a character who is purely reactive. One of the most valuable aspects of fiction is that it gives us a wide range of role-models whose actions and choices we can either emulate or avoid. But there's little to learn from a character who does nothing but react.

Even a passive character needs to be "actively passive" in order to be compelling (in other words, making choices to not engage, making choices to stay silent, making choices to turn away friends, etcetera).

The most notorious counterexample is Forest Gump. But personally, I hated that character.

3

There is no inherently bad way to create a protagonist. They come in many shapes and many sizes. Their personalities are varied and different because they've grown up in life with varied experiences. What matters isn't the base you are working with, but rather how you mold the character from that point forward. Look at Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games.

Spoilers:

She was fairly reactive: 1) volunteered to take Prim's place, 2) followed Peta's lead during the "advertising rounds" of the games, 3) trained the skills she already knew instead of branching out to learn something new, 4) never actively killing a single person...

When she did act, it was always because an outside force made her do so. Yet Katniss is generally praised for being a strong female lead and role model. There is no such thing as an "inherently bad character". Even a blank slate main character can be amazing in their own right. You just need to put the effort in to make them as such and not leave their characterization down to "reactive protagonist archetype." Give them their own strengths, flaws, skills, and weaknesses to work with and stay true to that information you have. Do that and you should be fine.

To follow up my point, you can also look at a "Mary Sue/Gary Stu" character. You'd think characters like that can only ever be a bad character, but as long as you're self-aware that the character is too perfect and make them come to the realization of that in their own time or start to break down walls that make them act that way, you can actually create amazingly realistic characters. Little Witch Academia did this quite well both with Diane and Akko.

Spoilers:

Akko was a Mary Sue in that she always messed up and was the epitome of imperfection, but her attitude and her luck allowed her to make everything okay in the end in the most annoyingly likable way possible. Diane was the exact opposite. She was THE perfect student in every respect, but we later see it was just a necessary act for her to get to where she wanted and that she had been jealous of Akko who got to live the very type of life Diane wanted.

While they both start the show off as Mary Sues, they then develop into actual characters with realistic feelings and motivations... ignoring the other issues the show had.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE! I'd argue that Katniss is actually very proactive: she volunteers to take her sister's place (instead of letting her be taken), she acts to draw attention to herself (including the famous shooting the apple out of the pig's mouth moment), she chooses to befriend Rue, and then to honour her body... Every moment in the arena, she is actively choosing her course of action. How much more proactive could she be? – Galastel Oct 25 '18 at 19:55
  • @Galastel, "deciding" to take the sisters place or let her die is a reaction to a No-Win Situation – If Katniss had HER choice, neither sister would fight. She also did not "decide" to befriend Rue, tend-and-befriend is Katniss' default state, and when Rue is hurt she reacts. None of these things were something she woke up one morning and "decided" to do, or made plans to do. Gladiators who are forced to fight until they die are the opposite of "pro-active", they have a Hobson's Choice to live or die. Being pro-active means pursuing your own goals for your own reasons. – wetcircuit Oct 25 '18 at 20:20
  • Galastel, I understand where you're coming from, but the problem is that the position is faulty. Reactive characters respond to the situations in front of them instead of creating situations of their own. See wetcircuit's very detailed breakdown for details, because I'm not going to knowingly repeat what was said. If you would like to chat about writing and characterization in more detail, feel free to invite me to a chat and I'd be glad to have a talk. Otherwise, comments are not the place for extended discussion, so this should be the end of this talk in this place. :) – Sora Tamashii Oct 25 '18 at 20:33
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It's often been pointed out that Indiana Jones has a minimal impact on the plot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Most if not all of the major plot points would have happened with or without him. Yet hardly anyone thinks Raiders of the Lost Ark is a bad movie or even that it tells a bad story. They don't even notice this quirk about its plot until you point it out to them.

So it's tempting to use Indiana Jones as an example of a reactive protagonist. If you just look at a list of plot points then it seems Indy doesn't do much. But if you look at the story through his eyes, you'll see Indy tries. He makes many choices and risks his life repeatedly, even though his choices don't ultimately have much impact. At almost any point he could say, "Screw this, I'm going home," but he never does. He keeps going, and in so doing, he takes the viewer on a hell of a ride. People go home thinking, "Man, I wish I were Indiana Jones!"

Now suppose the story were a bit different and most of the same things happen but Indy never actually makes any choices. Maybe the Nazis kidnap him early on and he just watches as things unfold from there. Then he might as well not even be in the story. Nobody fantasizes about being a guy like that.

1

A reactive or passive character is one that only "reacts" to things that happen around/to them. An active character is one that "actively" tries to shape their world or control what happens next.

Active characters are generally more well liked by readers because active characters have more room for characterization. I.e. you can see their characters by the choices they make and this provides for stories that are more character driven.

Passive characters are harder to show characterization for because they make less choices, and tend to exist mostly in plot driven stories. Character driven stories are currently much more popular in today's media then plot driven ones.

An example of a character who is both passive and active is Katniss Everdeen. During most of the Hunger Games Katniss is a passive character who is reacting to things and other peoples decisions, however she becomes and active character at the end of the book when (spoilers) she chooses to eat the berries with Peeta.

Passive characters actually show up a lot in dystopias. It generally helps drive home the point about how hopeless living in a dystopia would actually be, that the characters can't be active in this situation. A subversion of this is V from V for Vendetta who plays an active role in shaping the story and his plot instead of just reacting to it.

So, in conclusion, people like active characters because they like character driven stories, but passive characters can be used in the proper context and this is a link to the YouTube video I got most of this from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSwNWEDo8Iw

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    Katniss made her proactive decision very early, in choosing to go in her sister's place. She could have accepted fate and let her sister die in the games, but she refused to do that, and risked nearly certain death (as far as she knew) to save her sister's life. – Amadeus Oct 25 '18 at 16:26
  • @Amadeus fair point, but between choosing to replace her sister and choosing to eat the berries, oh and I suppose, also putting the flowers on Rue, Katniss does spend most of the novel reacting and being "passive" – Artsoccer Oct 25 '18 at 17:07
  • Perhaps, but that makes no difference. She proved her agency first, she proved she wasn't a passive character. She would have seemed like much less of a hero if SHE had been chosen for the games and just went along. In most stories, heroes do have a reactive phase but eventually choose to risk something important. They don't have to be proactive throughout the story. Once is enough, if the risk is large enough. Just like going to the Moon: Once an astronaut chooses to go, then pretty much things happen to them they have to deal with. – Amadeus Oct 25 '18 at 17:23

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