A key question in fiction: where does your protagonist sit on the proactivity scale? Do they pursue goals beyond the everyday? Survival or escape by themselves aren’t active goals. Something has to drive change and transformation, to become better by the end than they started at the beginning.
This harks back to Sanderson‘s three scales of character. Regardless of likability and competence, a lack of proactvitiy can break the reader’s interest in a character. A lack of proactivity is an unforgivable writing sin.
Flat-arc characters such as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond are relentlessly proactive, pursuing the mystery and the mission. We engage with them because they seek out the adventure and get things done.
More conventional characters have to earn our engagement. They often do this by moving up the scale of proactivity. They may start out entirely passive but gradually take control of their lives and destiny through their choices and decisions.
The Hero’s Journey (again)
Consider Sanderson‘s favourite examples in Star Wars. Leia is proactive above all, leading the Resistance, kicking the hermit Obi Wan into action. Luke Skywalker follows the classic hero’s journey, at first refusing the call to adventure when Obi-Wan tells him to learn the ways of the Force. Luke is launched into action after the death of his aunt and uncle, when he has nothing to tie him to home any more. His passivity almost gets him killed in the Mos Eisley cantina.
Aboard the ‘Falcon, Luke tries to learn something of the force but his youthful inhibitions and lack of conviction make him a poor student.
Luke’s first step into proactivity comes with the attempted rescue of Leia on the Death Star. He galvanises the reluctant Han Solo to act along with him. When the plan falls apart, though, it’s Leia who gets them out of immediate danger.
Obi Wan’s death ‘makes it personal’ (cliché alert). Luke then volunteers for the assault on the Death Star. His climactic act of proactivity is deciding to ‘trust the force,’ turning off his targeting system and taking the shot manually. Luke’s chance comes because Han decides to join the attack rather than escape with his money. This is Han’s change arc from passive to active.
These decisions toward proactivity complete each character’s satisfying arc of change or transformation. They return to the rebel base for the medal presentation and the affirmation of their peers. Nobody said Star Wars is subtle.
Don’t be a dish-rag
The lack of proactivity is why Twilight‘s Bella Swan is such a damp dish-rag of a character. A passenger in her own life story, Bella runs away to Forks for refuge. Stalked by the predatory bad boy Edward Cullen, Bella is repeatedly recued. She clings to the creepy Cullen boy – presumably her first boyfriend – because he’s broody mysterious and hot. Less of a choice, it’s effectively a surrender to a very toxic dominant-submissive relationship.
Her acceptance of Edward’s unusual ‘condition’ isn’t really a decision either, she merely continues to act the submissive.
Bella’s key decision is to sacrifice herself to James, in order to save her mother. It’s another act of surrender. The Cullens come to the rescue (again). She reluctantly goes to the ball, a latterday Cinderella, with her Prince Charmless.
Things don’t improve much in the later books. She acts in response to others, or in order to get a reaction from others. Bella’s Year of Moping, sat in her room, achieves… nothing. Entirely aimed at getting Edward’s attention, Bella indulges in extreme sports cliff-diving and motorcycle-crashing. Her ultimate ‘choice’ of Edward over Jacob is a fake choice; it was on the cards from the beginning.
Stephanie Meyer gives Bella a whole stack of fake choices for dramatic purposes, but she’s constantly browbeaten by eighty year-old Edward and sixteen-year old Jacob. It’s not exactly a feminist triumph. On the proactivity scale, Bella starts at the bottom and pretty much stays there.
Collect a Sticker
Lizzie Bennett on the other hand (yes, collect a Pride and Prejudice sticker) does her best to be proactive. She turns down Darcy and Mr Collins, asserting her independence when the sensible thing do to is jump at the opportunity – as her friend Charlotte Lucas does. Lizzie’s hurrah moment is telling Lady Catherine where to get off and risk all for love. Austen’s proactivity scale may be more genteel but it creates a template for the romance genre to this day. And everyone loves Lizzie.