How To Transition Your Protagonist From Passive To Active

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes writes about the moment your Protagonist transitions from passive to active, how to write it effectively, and why it’s important for your story.

Written by JJ Barnes

At the start your story your Protagonist needs to transition from passive to active. You join them at the beginning of the story, and ride with them until the climax.

At points you might move into the Point Of View (POV) of other characters, such as the Antagonist, but for the most part you stick with the Protagonist. I’ll explain why you need to write that transition, and how to do it well.

What Is A Passive Character?

A passive character is a person without motivation to achieve a goal. They are living their lives, going to their place of work or school, and interacting with their friends and family. Even if they aren’t happy with their current circumstances, they haven’t been motivated to take any steps to change them.

If your Protagonist remains passive for the majority, or entirety of your story, your story will feel pointless. You are joining this character at this point in their life for reason. If they aren’t doing anything, they’re just existing, why are you bothering to join them?

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Your Protagonist should transition from passive to active at the beginning of your story. It allows your audience to get to know who they are, who they people in their life are, and what in their life is unsatisfactory. It grounds your audience in the character so they’re familiar with the circumstances when the story begins.

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What Is An Active Character?

An active character is a person who is motivated and in pursuit of a goal. Either they want to change their own personal circumstances, or something is happening externally that they want to step in and change. Personal circumstances they want to change could be looking to find a relationship or a new job. An external situation they want to change could be aliens invading an they want to save their planet. Either way, your character has a goal, is motivated to achieve it, and is taking action.

You join your Protagonist at this point in their life because there is a story to tell. The story is their pursuit of a goal, and the journey that unfolds during that pursuit. Your Protagonist becomes motivated to change whatever circumstances they feel need changing. Your audience rides with them whilst they try to achieve it.

Whilst an active Protagonist is an essential story element, motivating every single character will improve your story immediately. Treat every character in every scene as if they’re the Protagonist of their own story, you’re just not riding with them. This way, they will all be motivated and the conflict will be active and interesting at all times.

Transition From Passive To Active

When you join your Protagonist in their passive state, it’s up to you how long you spend with them before they become motivated. However, ideally it will happen relatively quickly. In a novel you should transition them by the end of Chapter One. In a film script it should be within in the first ten pages.

The transition from passive to active occurs at the “Inciting Incident.” Something triggers a change in that character and they decide to take the steps to change their circumstances. That moment launches the central conflict of your story.

You should keep your character in active pursuit of that goal for the entirety of your story. If during any scenes in your story they are not in active pursuit of their goal, you should either lose the scene or edit it to keep them active. The resolution of that conflict occurs during the climax. Following that moment your Protagonist will transition back to passive. Their goal either accomplished or their circumstances changed to accepting their goal cannot be achieved at all.

The Inciting Incident Triggers The Transition From Passive To Active

In the film “Tangled,” the Protagonist, Rapunzel, is Passive until the arrival of Flynn Rider. Prior to that moment, she is unhappy with her life up the tower, but trusts her mother’s words that she shouldn’t leave. Even though she longs for freedom, and to see the floating lights, she isn’t taking active steps to change her circumstances.

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When Flynn Rider arrives, that triggers her transition from passive to active. She hides the stolen tiara, blackmails him into agreeing to take her to see the floating lights, and arranges for Mother Gothel to leave on a quest for paint. She escapes the tower, and keeps motivated to achieve her goal through even the most challenging of circumstances.

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Why It Matters

Your job is to keep your story interesting. If your story is interesting, you’ll hook the attention of the audience and keeping them committed the whole way through. The main draw to your story, beyond your world or concept, is your Protagonist; the person your audience is connecting to and invested in. If your Protagonist is passive and doesn’t want anything, your audience won’t want anything. If your character is unsatisfied but not bothering to change anything, your audience will lose interest in them because they’re boring.

By making sure your Protagonist is motivated and active, you’ll maintain your audience’s attention and keep them caring about the outcome. There’s no reason to stick with a story where nothing much is happening. You want your audience to emotionally connect, and be excited for the story climax. Without active goals, there’s nothing to care about, and no climax to build to.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website:

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Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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