Recently I began to think about the (fiction-writing) imperative that a main character must make things happen.
One of the most consistent criticisms of Linnea, the central character of my Lindorm novel, is that she’s too passive. “Everything happens to her,” someone said, “and she’s always having to close the gap and react.“
Linnea is my first (grown up) heroine.
When I created her I was telling a story. I wasn’t thinking of forms or expectations (hey, I was just trying to make word count half the time). She grew out of my image of this wounded girl with too much strength to simply roll over and take it. She continued to think and walk, and even fight when she could find (or create) the weapons.
I really admired her, because she did what I wanted to be able to do: choose the right way to respond. I wasn’t thinking about how she was “always reacting” because that’s the way (probably unconsciously) I saw myself and people in general.
And I still do.
Lots of people have repeated the line about how our character is not shaped/displayed so much by what happens to us as by how we respond to what happens to us.
The fantasy of a proactive, powerful protagonist is part of our collective hunger to have more control than we have.
I believe most our life what we do with what we’ve been given: given to us either by powers outside of us, outside our control; or what we’ve given ourselves, in the form of decisions we’ve already made, and are now living out.
For example, being married and having children dramatically restricts the number of choices I have. Because I’ve made the choice to live honorably. This is a proactive choice I made. No one coerced me into it. But it now restricts my “options”.
Every Yes we declare is a hundred silent Nos. The more we live, the more choices we make, the more we are hemmed in by our own freedoms.
I would argue this is why the Young Adult category is one of the most exciting places to write; not only because your characters have more genuine, clean, and life-shaping choices to make over the course of the tale, but also because those choices are felt by those who read them.
Young people are trying on decisions through their reading, experimenting with how they fit.
Readers who are older, who’ve already experienced the profound familiarity breaking away, of falling in love, of screwing up massively and wondering if there’s redemption, relive the fear and excitement. This is what good stories are for, and as long as they bring us along for the ride (and we like the ride) I’m less concerned about who started the story.
I care most about how the characters end it.