It feels like forever ago that I interned at a literary agency, but those times were some of the most valuable for me when it came to learning the art of editing. I was almost exclusively reading requested pages, usually full manuscript requests. It was an eye opener! Reading can be so subjective, and sometimes the reason for a rejection really was, “This just isn’t for her.”
But more often than not, there was a bigger reason–the main character didn’t drive the plot enough.
This is a problem that, if you don’t catch it right from the beginning, can be a massive pain to fix. You have to reevaluate your entire plot, analyzing each point to make sure that your main character played some part in the events that unfold.
A great example of things happening to a character can be found in basically any inciting incident. Hagrid hunts Harry down and tells him he is a wizard, then gives him everything he needs to go to Hogwarts. Tris takes the test she is supposed to take, they tell her her results were inconclusive, so she needs to pick one and pretend those were the results all along.
These are all fine for an inciting incident. But beyond that, your character has to make choices. Harry goes to school and decides to be friends with Ron rather than Draco. He tells the sorting hat to put him in Gryffindor, that one action defining everything else that happens in the series. Tris chooses Dauntless and then decides to jump into the pit first, thus earning her a reputation and putting her in the spotlight for the first time.
If you are still in the plotting phase, this can be an easier thing to look out for. You’ll need to spend some time getting to know your main character–really getting to know them. And then you start with your first scene. What would a person like your character do after that inciting incident? How would a person like your character get from point A to the point B that you’ve thought out for them? It’s important to keep an open mind, because there’s a chance your point B might need to be adjusted according to the character you’ve created.
If you are in the revisions phase and have noticed character inactivity issues, don’t fear! It’s a bit more difficult, but still completely possible to make your character a more active participant in the plot. There are a couple of different things you can do to make your already-written character a more active participant in the plot.
- See if there are aspects of your character’s personality/backstory that need to be changed. Maybe your passive character wouldn’t normally head down that dark tunnel when they see a shifty character headed down there. But if you add a more intense backstory–like maybe your character’s best friend was attacked by a werewolf down that same alley and your character wants to make sure their BFF is never hurt again–now your character has more cause to go in the direction you want them to. Keep in mind, though, that changing one aspect of your character’s personality or backstory may change they way he/she reacts to future events.
- See if there are plot points that need to be adjusted. There’s pretty good chance that, now that you have spent 50k+ words getting to know your MC, they are a little different than you originally envisioned. And even though the thought of deleting a bunch of scenes is scary, the character you’ve created may need to take a different path than the one you wrote for them in draft one. If you’ve seen my series on revisions, then you know my favorite method for this–note cards. You can write down all of the scenes from your first draft, then lay them out, shuffle them around, try sketching out how the scenes would play out if you changed a plot point or two… the creative possibilities are endless. And even though implementing those changes will be rough at times, your story will be a thousand times better because of it.
How do you make sure your characters drive the plot, rather than the other way around?