I'm having trouble writing my first real novel. The first three chapters in my story are dedicated to set up, introducing the main characters, and providing character motivations.

However, I have noticed a problem: almost none of my characters' motivations are driving the plot forward. Rather, the plot is driving the characters forward. The desires of the character are not driving the action, but rather it feels like the action is forcing the characters to mindlessly react to what is happening during the plot.

How can I have my characters drive the plot forward based on their motivations instead of just doing things because the plot demands it of them?

2 Answers 2


almost none of my characters' motivations are driving the plot forward. Rather, the plot is driving the characters forward. The desires of the character are not driving the action, but rather it feels like the action is forcing the creators to mindlessly react to what is happening during the plot.

That's not actually a problem

Certain genres do not require protagonist-driven plots because the protagonist is generally not the cause of the inciting incident.

Melodrama, Wrong Man, Persecution
Coming of Age
Witness to History

The protagonist in the above genres (in your case the ensemble) might not get to act on their own motives until the final chapters, if at all. It's a defining element that the protagonist is not in control.

When they do act, it's often a mistake that brings more conflict. That's the structure of increasing the stakes, they move from frying pan into the fire.

Some common denominators are that external events drive the story and the protagonist must discover the situation as it unfolds.

It may be that you need some secondary characters who are failing, so your main characters look better at actively coping with the situation.

Scale back, or delay the opening?

You don't say your genre, and you don't seem to have a problem with the characters, themselves. Maybe they are being over-shadowed by your plot?

If your inciting incident is intentionally sensational: an alien invasion, falling through a time-portal..., your protagonists will be reacting. LOL!

Since this is a novel not a screenplay, you have the time to get to know your ensemble in their 'normal'. Give them lives where they are pursuing their dreams, and just as we learn about their day-to-day conflicts (with themselves, with each other) it's all interrupted by the horrible big inciting incident.

Character Agency vs Character-Driven

If you are sure about the plot, maybe it's the characters that need the adjustment.

The protagonist in The Diary of Anne Frank has the least agency, is maybe least influential character possible – not every main character gets to fly to Tahiti on a spy-cation. There are benefits to under-powered characters who endure impossible situations. They generate a lot of sympathy in ways that action heroes can't. It's not as if they can exert their desires onto the world. All the more reason to feel satisfaction when they persevere.

Cinderella is a character that a lot of plot happens to. Her character is usually 'fixed' by giving her an inner life of hope and dreams in contrast to her harsh reality (it feels like she wanted those things to happen, so it's ok that she has no agency?) In some versions, Cinderella is kind to a supernatural being before the supernatural favors are returned. I like these versions because what little agency she has she uses to benefit someone less fortunate than herself, earning her indirect pay-off.

If your plot has stuck you with a passive/reactive MC, maybe consider how they can be written to emphasize their lack of agency. The 'last girl' trope evolved by making the horror protagonist less and less empowered, until the survivor isn't the hero who stands to fight the monster but the girl who keeps screaming and running away. Thrillers fit nicely with a protagonist who is 'vulnerable' from the start (it adds suspense). Melodrama is a grist-mill on orphans and unmarried mothers. Historical dramas can become intimate by focusing on an assistant or helper rather than the legendary figure.

On the other hand, an action hero who is hog-tied and forced to jump to someone else's whip is not a compelling power fantasy, it's camp. You may have wonderfully competent leaders who don't get the chance to lead, or the 'best and brightest' who immediately fail. Maybe shift the focus away from that opening flaw, by down-grading or distancing your protagonists.

Fix it in the 2nd Draft

Writing is editing, as the saying goes.


The first half of the first act (10-15% of the story) introduces readers to the "Normal World" for the protagonist (Main Character, or Main Crew if you are writing about 2 or more protagonists, both can be abbreviated MC).

At the midpoint of the first Act, after we understand the Normal World, something happens, called The Inciting Incident (II). The MC has a problem. Something is wrong. And because of they way the MC is in the Normal World, they cannot just ignore it.

Often the II seems minor, the MC does something to address it, but it doesn't work. It gets worse. The MC tries again, and it gets even worse. By the end of the First Act, the MC is in bad trouble, they cannot fix or ignore the problem started by the II, and either physically or metaphorically, they must leave their Normal World to address this problem.

The Novel is about a struggle, and setbacks, and despair, and eventually the MC must risk everything, even their life, to fix the problem. If they survive, then the problem is solved, and the MC embraces the result. Perhaps a return to their Normal World, or if that is impossible, the final bit of the story shows them embracing the New Normal, and their role in that.

This is how short stories work, how novels work, how movies work, how television series work (although, those are usually nested stories inside a much longer story, with each episode contributing incrementally to the longer story, which is often wrapped up all at once in a series finale).

Each episode of a TV Series is Normal/Problem/Escalation/Resolution, with 5 or 10 minutes devoted to each phase. And sometimes we can squeeze in a beat (development) in the long arc series story.

The plot is supposed to drive the characters. Their problem is imposed upon them, and they are forced to react. After that, the MC and the villain (either personified or a natural villain like an earthquake or cancer) are forced to respond to each other.

But the reason the MC responds is because, way back in the setup, that first 10-15% of the story, when you are most able to just assert things and have readers believe them, you showed us the personality and goals and type of person your MC is. In a way that means they must respond to the inciting incident. But then, as you wish, their response is driven from within, from their own desires and emotions and morals.

You don't just define people you like and then throw in a problem. You need to design your characters and show us who they are, in a way that we know they must respond to the problem. THIS woman we have met will not let that man kidnap that child. That is against everything we just learned about her.

That's the kind of job you have to do; your characters must be designed to fit your plot so even if they may hesitate, ultimately they cannot help but engage, whether that is courage or weakness,. And that engagement leads to problems, a chain reaction that culminates in a completed story.

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