About ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, authors would write a story about a character responding to all the terrible things that happen to him/her.
That was fine for twenty years ago. These days, the reactionary character is BORING.
Your character shouldn’t simply react or respond to the horrible situations she finds herself in. Your character should be actively working toward a GOAL (uh-oh, Camy said the G-word). Your character should be PROACTIVE.
Parson’s daughter Eleanor is invited to her rich cousins’ house for the summer. She has grown up in poverty, and she only vaguely knows her aristocratic distant family.
Various things happen that distress Eleanor. Her clothes are laughed at, the servants ignore her, her uncle tries to marry her to his horrible curate, her aunt falls deathly ill, and the boy she loves is in love with her selfish, spoiled cousin Agatha.
This version of the story has Eleanor simply reacting to the bad things that happen to her. We don’t know what she wants, and she isn’t working to accomplish anything for herself or anyone else.
However, what if we change it up?
Eleanor is invited to her rich cousin’s house for the summer. She sees it as an opportunity to learn refined manners and snag herself a wealthy husband to lift her family out of poverty and provide the money to care for her sick mother.
She can’t dress like her cousins and they laugh at her instead of helping her or letting her borrow clothes. The servants treat her like a poor relation and she feels both lowly and unwanted. Her uncle tries to marry her to his horrible curate, who is not only poor but also gauche and unsophisticated. She finally manages to ingratiate herself with her aunt, who promises to help her find some nice dresses and learn to behave like a genteel miss, but then her aunt falls deathly ill. Eleanor gets along with a wealthy neighbor boy who seems to like her, but her spoiled cousin flirts with him to steal him away.
Suddenly, in this version of the story, Eleanor has a GOAL, and it lifts her from wishy-washy reactionary heroine to strong, determined, proactive heroine.
Many writers don’t even realize their characters are reactionary and not proactive. One thing to do is look at a scene and ask yourself—what is your character striving for in this scene? What is he trying to accomplish by the end of the scene? What object is he working toward in this scene?
If you don’t know, then maybe your character doesn’t have an objective for the scene. In which case, your character is reacting to the conflict in the scene and not working against the conflict. Ideally, your characters should be causing the conflict.
Go through your manuscript and make your characters proactive!