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?

Lisa

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

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