Building Character: Who’s Driving This Thing?

This is the second in a periodic series about characterization in writing. Please check out my first post in the series, which looks at a character’s role in the Story Mind as expressed in the Dramatica Theory of storytelling.

A story begins when something changes the status quo.

Luke Skywalker doesn’t start becoming a hero until two droids crash on his planet. John McClane doesn’t become a terrorist-fighting cowboy cop until Hans Gruber takes hostages in an office building. Hamlet doesn’t start on his murder investigation/rampage of revenge until he gets a mysterious visit from a restless ghost. Even a feel-good romantic comedy like Sleepless in Seattle needs a trigger to set things in motion — in this case, Sam Baldwin’s son Jonah calling a late-night radio talk show.

People don’t spontaneously change their lives for no reason; an external trigger of some kind has to change the balance and push the protagonist into becoming a protagonist. Joseph Campbell called this “The Call to Adventure,” and it’s always something outside the protagonist’s control.

What really sets characters apart from one another is what they do next.

There are two main strategies that protagonists follow when they respond to the Call to Adventure, and there are two modes that they can act in when pursuing one of these strategies.

The Modes: Proactive vs. Reactive

When the Call to Adventure happens, there are two main ways they can respond to it: either they can come up with a plan and act on it (proactive), or they can look at someone else’s plan and react to it (reactive).

Proactive characters are usually trying to change the way things are. The situation they are in has become intolerable enough that they are willing to take risks in order to improve it. If they succeed, they will usually be much happier at the end of the story than they were at the beginning.

  • In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron poses a terrible threat to the entire world, one that the heroes have no chance of beating through conventional means. After Gandalf discovers that Frodo is the keeper of Sauron’s One Ring (trigger), Frodo proactively sets out on a mission to break Sauron’s power by destroying the One Ring.
  • In Hamlet, Claudius is the king and may have seized power by murdering his brother. After a visit from his father’s ghost (trigger), Hamlet proactively hatches a plan to test Claudius’s heart and determine the truth of his guilt or innocence.
  • In Sleepless in Seattle, Annie is unhappy with her engagement to Walter. After hearing Jonah on the call-in show (trigger), she proactively writes a letter to Sam Baldwin, inviting him to meet her on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.

Here’s the test of whether a character is proactive: if the character does not act, then the general situation doesn’t change. The character is driving the plot forward.

Reactive characters, by contrast, are generally trying to keep things the same. The Call to Adventure has threatened something that is dear to them — home, family, country, livelihood — and they are willing to take risks in order to preserve that thing. Reactive characters usually start the story relatively happy, descend into unhappiness as disaster strikes, and then fight their way back to the level of happiness they started with.

  • In The Dark Knight, the Joker is threatening the safety of the people of Gotham. Batman reacts to catch the Joker and stop his campaign of destruction.
  • In Alien, Ripley’s life and the lives of her crewmates are threatened when the Xenomorph gets stuck on their ship. Ripley reacts to destroy the Xenomorph and save her own life.
  • In Air Force One, terrorists seize control of President Marshall’s plane and take his family hostage. Marshall reacts to stop the terrorists and save his family.

If a reactive character does not act, then the general situation changes in a way that is detrimental to them. Someone else, usually the antagonist, is driving the plot forward.

Contrary to what you may have been told in English class, there is nothing inherently better about one type of character over the other; excellent stories can be told with protagonists that are proactive or reactive. Often the genre of a story, however, is more conducive to one mode over another. Superheroes, police officers, secret agents, and established family men tend to be reactive by nature: they won’t move until an antagonist moves first, threatening what they wish to protect. Private investigators, athletes, thieves, con artists, and young single people tend to be proactive: there’s a prize to be won, a mystery to be solved, or love to be gained, and they actively pursue it.

The Strategies: Linear vs. Holistic

A character’s mode of action defines, in a broad way, what is important to him — e.g., changing things or keeping them the same, gaining something new or protecting what he has. The two strategies define different ways of tackling the problem that the Call to Adventure has presented him with.

Linear Problem-Solvers see their situation in terms of cause and effect. They identify the most important factor that is causing their problem, and they target that factor through a logical process of incremental steps. They generally develop one plan and follow it through to its conclusion, dealing with obstacles along the way but always seeking to move forward along that path.

  • In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy’s goal is to find his father. He retraces his father’s steps, looking for clues that lead him, step by step, to the castle where the Nazis are holding his father prisoner. He then gains a new goal — keeping the Holy Grail away from the Nazis — and again follows a series of incremental steps to get there.
  • In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling has the goal of stopping the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Her plan to do this is to win the trust of Hannibal Lecter and use his insights to catch Bill. Lecter gives her a clue to pursue, which she does, and this leads her back to Lecter with more questions, which lead to more clues. Each step in the investigation leads linearly to the next step.

Holistic Problem-Solvers see their situation in terms of a balance of relationships. Rather than looking for a single key factor at the heart of the problem, holistic thinkers look at the big picture, intuitively sensing many small factors that work together. A holistic character will seek to alter the balance between these factors, thus attacking the problem from multiple independent angles until a solution presents itself. If a linear problem-solver is trying to win the game, a holistic problem-solver is trying to change the rules.

  • In Dead Witch Walking, Rachel Morgan quits her job with Inderland Security and finds herself with a price on her head; there is an imbalance in the relationship between her and her former employer. Rather than directly going to her former bosses and negotiating for the bounty to be removed, as a linear problem-solver might, Rachel decides to correct the imbalance by nailing businessman Trent Kalamack for drug trafficking, thus giving I.S. a prize that will restore the good-will of their relationship. She increases her resources by strengthening her relationships with her partners, Ivy and Jenks, who have skills that Rachel lacks. In the course of trying to investigate Kalamack, Rachel is imprisoned by him, and uses the opportunity to befriend one of her fellow prisoners. Subsequent twists and turns in the plot lead to Rachel obtaining an understanding with Kalamack and allies in the Federal Inderland Bureau (FIB), which gives her enough resources to stay alive and free, at least for now. She still hasn’t accomplished her goal of removing the bounty from her head, but the balance has been corrected, and that’s enough for the book to have a happy ending.
  • In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn is a holistic problem-solver. He intuitively builds networks of relationships around himself, even with individuals who seem like they serve no useful purpose in his plans (Jar Jar and Anakin). These relationships create options and opportunities that he makes good use of later in the story, using Anakin’s racing skills to win the parts to fix Amidala’s ship and using Jar Jar’s connections in Gungan society to negotiate an alliance that allows them to throw the Trade Federation off Naboo.
  • It’s worth noting that by the time of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Obi-Wan has adopted his old mentor Qui-Gon’s holistic strategy, including the accumulation of “pathetic life-forms” that he once ridiculed. When Obi-Wan sacrifices his life and becomes a Force-ghost to let the Millennium Falcon escape from the Death Star, it is a classic example of a holistic character changing the rules of the game rather than trying to win it.

To a linear problem-solver, holistic thinkers can seem flighty and irrational, flailing around in many directions without a coherent plan. To a holistic problem-solver, linear thinkers can seem hidebound and tunnel-visioned, unable to see the forest for the trees. Both strategies can be effective in different circumstances, but they each have definite strengths and weaknesses.

Holistic problem-solvers are relatively rare as main characters in modern storytelling, especially in television and movies. This is because most screenplays are written by men and for male audiences, and men are usually (though not always) linear problem-solvers. Women, who are usually (though not always) holistic problem-solvers, can generally understand and empathize with a character who solves problems linearly, because a holistic thinker is able to see the linear thinker’s plan as a valid solution (though one of many). For linear thinkers, though, the holistic character’s balance-based problem-solving can be very hard to understand or identify with, so directors and producers (overwhelmingly male) tend to push characters in the direction of linear problem-solving.

Holistic characters are usually either relegated to secondary roles — where they can be very useful in making the linear main character aware of alternative paths to his goal — or take the lead in films aimed primarily at women, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary. Even when a big-budget Hollywood film has a woman in the starring role, she will most likely pursue a linear problem-solving strategy; Merida from Brave, Ripley from Alien, and Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs are all examples of this. In novels and other forms of written fiction, holistic characters are somewhat more common — as are female authors.

Putting It All Together

Taken together, the two modes and the two strategies suggest four different types of main characters.

Linear and Proactive

A linear problem-solving, proactive character identifies the main cause of his unhappiness and decides on a solution to that cause. He determines the incremental steps that will lead to that solution, narrowing his focus to a single path to a single goal. If his path is blocked, he will look for the most direct “fix” to this obstacle. If another path to the same goal exists, he will need another character to point it out, and even then he may stick to his original plan.

Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is an example of a linear, proactive character.

Holistic and Proactive

A holistic problem-solving, proactive character sees her unhappiness as the result of unbalanced relationships and limited options. She will intuitively sense the multiple facets in which her life is unsatisfactory and act to rebalance them. She will broaden her scope, seeking new elements that she can introduce into the situation that will create opportunities. If obstacles arise, she will attack the problem from new angles, creating synergies between the new elements she has introduced so that novel solutions present themselves. In the process, however, she may introduce so many new factors into the situation that she creates unintended consequences for herself and others.

Rachel Morgan of The Hollows series is an example of a holistic, proactive character.

Linear and Reactive

The linear problem-solving, reactive character needs to know his enemy’s plans above all else. He seeks to identify the critical weakness that will foil these plans, and develops a strategy to attack that weakness. If he has lost something he values to the enemy, he will develop a counter-attack, either to regain what he lost or for revenge. If the enemy anticipates his actions, this character is easy to lead into a trap, because the enemy is the one with the initiative.

Batman is generally an example of a linear, reactive character.

Holistic and Reactive

The holistic problem-solving, reactive character, like her linear counterpart, is responding to the actions of her antagonist. Unlike the linear and reactive character, though, the holistic and reactive character sees her enemy’s organization as a network of interdependent parts. The enemy’s plans are not as important as his resources, his supply lines, and his relationships. This character will work to alter the playing field so that these support systems crumble around her enemy, leaving him vulnerable. She will avoid direct confrontation until her enemy’s support system is already in tatters and all his plans have failed. Her tactics are likely to be difficult for her enemy to predict, as she adapts her approach to suit the changing circumstances. She may seem like she has no idea how to accomplish her goals, but she is slowly building her own capacity and taking away her enemy’s until the opportunity for final victory presents itself. The friends and resources she has collected along the way will play a critical role in her success, often in a way she never could have planned at the outset.

The Paragon version of Commander Shepard, in the Mass Effect video game series, is a holistic and reactive character; so is Karen Page in Netflix’s Daredevil series.


The following sources were invaluable in the creation of this blog post.

  1. Dramatica: What is The Main Character Problem Solving Style?
  2. Narrative First: Female Main Characters Who Think Like Female Main Characters
  3. How To Write A Book Now: How To Write A Holistic Character With My Linear Brain
  4. Ola Moller: Intuitive vs. Rational Thinking
  5. Story Mind: How to Write Characters of the Opposite Sex

Note that some of these sources use the term “male mental sex” to refer to linear problem-solving and “female mental sex” to refer to holistic problem-solving. I have avoided these terms because (1) males are not universally linear thinkers, (2) females are not universally holistic thinkers, and (3) neither of these problem-solving strategies has anything to do with a character’s gender identity or biological sex.

Posted by chriswlester