Characterisation…To react or take control, that is the question!

Mmmh…Characterisation, to do or not, to be reactive or to be proactive: these are the burning questions of the day!

After discussing this quandary at length on a twitter chat writer’s group, I have come up with a few theories and a few questions.

The topic of the twitter discussion was: Reactionary Protagonists are characters that only react to things that happen to them, rather than taking control?

I must say it is a topic that seems to have a wide range of views. Then again throw a few writers into a chat room and it goes without saying that you will have a wide variety of views and opinions.

My theory on this discussion is that yes I do believe you can have a purely reactionary character as a your MC/protagonist. If your story involves a particularly large world-altering event and your MC happens to be a submissive character, then your MC by default would be purely reactionary. The argument however is how do you get the reader to connect with this MC. This opens the floor to another question: Does your reader always have to connect/like your MC?

My answer to this is that no, I do not think that a reader always will like/connect with your MC. Take for example one of the great classics: “Wuthering Heights”. The MCs in this novel were Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Although this is a work of genius in terms of characterization, Emily Bronte has created characters that are anti-heroes and that have more faults and weaknesses than strengths. However, this work is one of the great works of Modern Literature in spite of or possibly in part because of this. It brings to mind the theory that people tend to love to hate the Anti-hero.

Coming back to the original question at hand: How do you get your reader to connect with a reactionary/submissive MC? The answer depends on the reader and would be completely subjective. Do I believe that people can relate and connect to a submissive character? Yes. Most people by nature tend to react to circumstances that life throws at them without ever taking control, in effect letting circumstance take control of their very reactions. Therefore a purely reactionary or submissive MC would find an audience.

Another spin on this discussion that I would put out there is: Can an event be the MC in your story? Thereby making all the characters reactionary characters and secondary to the event itself.

In my current WIP, I have two MCs. One MC is purely reactive and as such passive, the other MC is proactive and takes control of circumstance thereby not only changing future events but controlling future events. Both these characters face the same circumstances but act differently. Will a reader be able to connect with both characters? Yes. Both characters are reflections of the twin nature of human nature when faced with a trial or a tribulation. One part of human nature is only able to react as sometimes the event or circumstance is completely out of their control. An example of this would be a natural disaster. The other part of human nature is defined by the Fight or Flight theory. Certain personalities will have a stronger desire to, if not control the event then, take control of the after-effects of the event. On the other side of the coin, other personalities will not have the strength of character to act in a proactive way and will be forced to react to the event thereby giving the event power over their actions or lack of actions.

The way I am characterising my own two MCs is that there are lessons to be learned in each behaviour pattern. Sometimes, more harm is brought about by acting proactively. Ultimately, to grow and transform, both of these characters must learn from each other. Their relationship encapsulates the “Yin/Yang” theory. Sometimes the wiser character is the character that can submit to an event rather than spend all their energy fighting an event that they can have no control over. As we all know, some purely proactive characters can come across as being impulsive and arrogant thereby antagonizing the audience. Whether your character ends up antagonizing your reader or whether it ends up drawing the reader in means that you have managed to pull an emotional response, irregardless of whether it is positive or negative, from your reader and that is an end in itself. Indeed writing for publication is about a reactionary response to your story from your audience. In the best stories, this reaction can turn into proactive action from your reader by pushing the reader to change their own circumstances that they may have read echoed in your story.

Coming back to my other theory thrown out there: Can an event be a MC? In short, yes I believe an event can be the MC in your story. In the light of this theory, the characters would definitely be reactionary. However, you could then bring in the Transformational Character. The Transformational character could grow from the event and evolve from having a passive nature to finding an inner strength of character. Some types of characters need an event to change them. This is how an event can become the MC or even the protagonist in a story. It is the event itself or the nature of the event that creates reactions in the characters of the story.

Ultimately characterisation of your characters should challenge the reader and even more importantly challenge the writer and creator of these said characters. My challenge is writing in characters that I do no like and do not understand sometimes. Their motives and reactions to circumstances are polar opposites to my own or to what I find acceptable behaviour.  However when I create a character like this, I know that this character will challenge my theories on acceptable more than any other. In my view, writers are by their very nature challengers and truth seekers. The old adage of “The truth hurts.” always comes to mind when I read / write about a character that changes my perspective or challenges my beliefs.

Do not underestimate your reader’s ability to be challenged! Write to challenge. Write to create discussion and to create controversy.

Whether your characters are purely reactionary or submissive or whether they are “kick-ass” heroes and fighters, remember to make them individuals.

F Scott Fitzgerald summed it up perfectly:

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created – nothing.

food for thought, KK

All rights reserved © Kim Koning 2010