Reactive and Proactive Characters: Buffy vs Bella

Your main protagonist should begin as reactive and eventually progress to proactive. Buffy (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was this bada$$ character who didn’t take junk from anybody including Spike. Everywhere she went, she influenced the action around her. Bella (from Twilight) seems to be in need of rescue all the time.

Buffy the vampire slayerI love movies and television – anything that will bring me into a great entertaining story. I especially LOVE vampire stories – everything from Bram Stoker to Buffy to Twilight to Van Helsing to Daybreakers to Underworld. Bring it on. (Hence today’s title.) I love a strong female character, one who doesn’t take junk from nobody. I have no patience for the Daphne’s of the story world – remember Daphne? The female fashionista from Scooby-Doo who gushed over Fred and was always being kidnapped – ALWAYS. That’s annoying. I mean, even Scooby and Shaggy decide to be monster bait after some Scooby snacks.

At some point in your story, your protagonist needs to go from reacting to situations outside of their control, to taking control and influencing the action – otherwise (as a general rule) your readers will quit the story. Gone are the days of the 50’s pirate romances where the damsel in distress is kidnapped by the pirate and by the end sees all his redeeming qualities beneath that hard damsel-stealing exterior and falls in love with him. Oy. That’s where I quit reading and beat myself with the book as punishment for wasting my time.

Reactive characters

Usually every novel begins with a reactive protagonist. Cue the ‘normal’ scene with Buffy at school or waking up, and then BAM – a vampire appears out of nowhere and knocks her flat. She’s forced to react to a situation outside of her control or influence. Bella is reactive for nearly the entire novel – but more on her later. Most stories begin by putting the protagonist in a situation outside of their control they can’t walk away from, often a life-threatening situation. The kind of novel you’re writing will dictate what kind of situation this is and what the stakes are.

You raise the stakes for your protagonist by continuing to heap problems on them they can’t walk away from. It’s like a cliche country song – first your truck dies, then your dog dies, then your girlfriend leaves you… But reactive characters depend on others for solutions to their problems.

Proactive Characters

Proactive characters are the ones who take action into their own hands. This is when Buffy goes all – ‘that vamp’s so dead,’ and marches out of the library wooden stake in hand. She makes a decision, good or bad, and acts on it – and her action moves the story forward. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Spike had to always kidnap Buffy and Angel rescued her. Yawn. What kind of vampire slayer would that make?

The proactive character doesn’t wait for others to create a solution, he is involved in creating his own solutions. They make decisions about their situation, maybe come to a fork in the road, maybe make a bad decision – but they don’t wait around for others to fix things. These characters are more interesting to read about, and because the reader is along for the decision-making process they’re invested in the character.

The Problem With Bella

Bella in school parking lot

I really enjoyed reading Twilight, it’s light and entertaining. A welcome escape from reality for a bit. However, here’s my biggest beef with Twilight – Bella is reactive. Stuff happens to Bella and she waits for Edward to rescue her throughout almost the entire novel.

She’s almost smushed by a truck in an icy school parking lot – Edward rescues her.

She’s a social outcast who’s never had a boyfriend – Edward, the guy every girl wants, decides to date her.

She’s targeted by vamps who want to eat her – Edward whisks her away to safety.

It’s not until the third-last scene in the book that Bella takes one small proactive step and agrees to escape her protectors to meet the bad guy to save her mom – and then what happens? Edward rescues her. She gets bitten – Edward sucks out the poison. A model for teen girls Bella is not.

If you’re stuck in a vamp-infested cellar in an all-out smackdown – who do you want with you? Bella or Buffy? Point made.

Luke Skywalker vs Anakin Skywalker

My son is a huge Star Wars fan. But here’s my problem with Star Wars – if you watch all 6 movies it becomes clear that the whole series is really about ‘the chosen one’ Anakin Skywalker, not Luke Skywalker as those fans of the first trilogy thought.

Everyone loves Luke. Luke runs back to save his aunt and uncle, he decides to follow Obi-Wan into unknown danger, he trains to be a Jedi with Yoda, he rescues Chewie and Leia and Hans, he faces his fears and not only defeats Darth Vader but redeems him as well. He creates his own solutions.

But Anakin? He’s found. He’s trained. He follows Obi-Wan. He does what he’s told – he complains, he cops an attitude – but he still does what he’s told by everyone: the Emperor, Padme, the Jedi Council… He reacts. He does four proactive things in 6 movies: he kills his mother’s murderers, marries Padme, and he agrees to serve the Emperor and become a Sith – which lands him in yet further reactive situations until he throws the Emperor in a pit. I think that’s a big reason why there are more fans of Luke than Anakin.

But Twilight‘s a NYT Bestseller – and it breaks this rule

I hear what you’re saying – ‘but Bella sold A LOT of books.’ Really? Bella is the point of view character, but which characters are selling that series? I would argue it’s not Bella, who is the one telling the story – you’re never in Edward’s head and only briefly in one book do you get to see inside Jacob’s head. But it’s Edward and Jacob (both proactive characters) who sell the story to fans, not Bella. Are you on Team Bella? Point proven. The secondary protagonists steal the show. I think that story would be a lot more interesting if Bella was a bit more Buffy.

Camy Tang has a really great article on proactive characters if you want to read more on the topic.

What about you? Do you agree that proactive characters are more interesting than reactive characters? Who’s your favorite character – are they reactive or proactive? What about your main protagonist?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

19 comments on “Reactive and Proactive Characters: Buffy vs Bella

  1. I like proactive characters- One of my favs is Stephanie Plum from the Janet Evanovitch series- often she makes the wrong choice, but she is making them. For a vamp hunter Jane Yellowrock from Faith hunter’s series- she’s a series badass.

  2. Wonderful post, ladies. This is something a tension I’ve struggled with in my fantasy WIP, and one reason why I had to walk away from it. I felt like my protagonist was far too reactive, like she wasn’t standing up for herself enough, and it was driving me nuts (because if I can’t stand to write her, who’s going to want to read her?).

    The good news is that after a few months of the story lying dormant, I’ve figured out how to turn her around in Acts 2 and 3, so this is exciting! And speaking of the Buffy, have you all seen the Buffy vs. Edward youtube clip? It is, in a word, brilliant.

  3. Loved this post! You made some really excellent points and had me laughing along the way. I have actually just recently gotten into Buffy (my dad, yep you read that right, owns all the DVDs and we are having marathons to get me through the series) and I already see what you mean. Now I need to go to my story and make sure that my female protag is proactive not reactive. I think she is, but now I am determined to make sure. Thanks for the awesome post!

  4. To stir up a little controversy, perhaps Bella is not the actual protagonist of the Twilight saga? Yes, the story is her POV almost exclusively, but you’re right on multiple points: She’s reactive to other characters, specifically Edward. Edward is impulsive, brash, and proactive.

    Perhaps if we look at Twilight in the same sort of light as Don Quixote, where the first person narrator is not the protagonist, we’ll understand the story structure better.

  5. Wow, so much to think about. The first proactive female protag who flew into my mind was Jane Eyre who resists all those who “have her best interests at heart” and acts based on her ideals and desires. I read and am writing ghost fiction. So many people praise The Woman in White, but that Victorian woman (whom the author extols) must be rescued. The noble female character in that novel who takes action is described as ugly, dark, mannish.

    I think the modern proactive protag has to be Lisbeth Salander.

    In my novel, the heroine struggles with and fights alongside the hero. (As opposed to me personally, a confirmed wimp!)

  6. I have to agree. Bella was the character I liked least in the Twilight series. Just watched Vampires Suck and got a big kick out of the Bella spoof. Don’t get me wrong, Twilight was fun but, if there was an Apocalypse on the way, I’m totally calling Buffy (and Faith).

    I like female character who is strong and feminine. I don’t want a character that is all fight all the time but I can’t stand the damsel in distress crap. Sure, we all need a little rescuing now and then but there’s a limit. LOL. I loved that Buffy could be all “You’re dust, vamp…ooooh cute shoes.” 😀

  7. I loved this article. I am in the middle of two fiction novels right now and one has a very strong personality and takes on the world but I was stuggling with the ending. Now I understand why it didn’t work. I turned my proactive character into a reactive character in the end! the other novel I was having trouble the opposite way. Thanks for the advice! now I know where to go from here.

  8. This is great advice. I think that it is one thing to have a WIP and go through it intuitively and quite another when there is a plan of action. I will make sure to make my protagonist someone we can all be proud of!!
    Excellent post!

  9. Great article! Love Joss Whedon, he knows how to write strong female characters. Definitely love proactive characters. There was one point when I was writing my first draft of my current WIP and I hit a minor block, and finally I realized it was because my character was reacting. When I backed up and rewrote where she took control, the whole scene popped into my head and it ended up being the first time she kisses the hero. Also, great link to Tang’s article– I hadn’t seen that– I took a Deep POV class from her and she’s awesome!

  10. Yep, I’m finally catching up with GWP posts.

    I definitely find proactive characters more appealing. Is it OK if I cheat just a little? My fave movie is “Freedom Writers.” Although it’s a drama, the main character, based on a real teacher, is very proactive. I love her strength and the way she leads her class to become proactive individuals, students no-one else held up any hope for.

    Buffy it is.

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  13. Great article! I’m writing a story right now wherein the protagonist begins as reactive though becomes proactive as circumstances change and she grows as a person. She might end up causing a zombie apocalypse through her actions, sure, but that is besides the point haha. Buffy is such a well done strong female protagonist, and such a great example to use in blogs like these. I recently wrote an article on my blog about writing strong female protagonists by creating a compelling, dimensional, and relatable character on my blog, and used Buffy as an example! Check it out,

  14. Awesome post. My favourite characters are always proactive, the sooner the better, even if they make wretched choices. I’m not as mean toward the Twilight books as a lot of people, I read the first and half of the second until I couldn’t stand any more of the obsessive patterns Bella gets in. All the same, Bella drove me nuts. The book doens’t make my worst books ever list, but Bella is on my worst characters ever list…if that makes sense 😛

    I definitely prefer proactive. I really like moments when a character manages to find a way to be proactive when the situation seems determined to take everything out of their control. I see that a lot in Arya from the Song of Ice and Fire books, honestly.

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