Characters are actors in our stories and must be active, this doesn’t mean they can’t react to situations but this can’t be all they do. If characters only react they become passive and the story loses forward momentum. Consider stories such as Lord of the Rings, where the characters are reacting to the threat of evil but pushing forward to combat it. By this I mean that they don’t wait for Sauron, the antagonist, to come to them they choose to move forward to prevent what could happen. In crime fiction detectives go looking for clues, they don’t wait for them. Love stories are about the pursuit of love.
Whichever genre you write the characters must have forward motion and some kind of drive, even if that drive is the opposite of what is happening, such as the anti-hero who ends up being seen as a hero. The anti-hero may, for example, be driven forward by the pursuit or revenge but in attacking the antagonist other characters see heroic intent such as V in V For Vendetta, Deadpool, or The Punisher. Generally, though not always, the willingness to kill is a marker of the difference between an anti-hero and a hero. The ‘true hero’ won’t kill anyone, even their enemy, unless there is no other way to stop them. Bond gets away with being a hero despite shooting everyone because his antagonists are always unstoppable people bent on world domination. In the original Bond books and films there are also racist and xenophobic elements that make it ‘acceptable’ for him to run around shooting people, but we’ve discussed this previously.
This drive however doesn’t mean that the antagonist can never be a step ahead of the protagonist nor that they can ever get things wrong. When we talk about being active in fiction this doesn’t mean that wrong character being out smarted or reacting to a situation is wrong. Our protagonists can’t always be the cause of events because this would be unbelievable, sometimes in fiction, as in life, things happen that are out of a character’s control. For instance in the crime novel despite the detective’s active pursuit of the murderer they still have to react to further murders. Although they are reacting to a murder they are not reactive characters because they are attempting to catch the antagonist. Further murders are an effect of their failure to catch the killer, not an effect of them not attempting to catch the killer.
A classic example of the reactive character is the infamous damsel in distress whose purpose in the plot is to get captured and wait for the hero to rescue her. The women in Bond stories would be an obvious example. If they are active it is generally to find some trouble they can’t get out of without the hero’s help, often repeatedly.
If in doubt about whether your character is active or reactive ask yourself what their drive is and what they are doing to achieve their aims. If they appear to be jumping from one situation to another that is not of their making and they have done nothing to bring themselves to then they are probably reactive. If their drive has made them act and this action has led to consequences then they are probably active.
Just remember, your characters can’t control everything so it’s alright if trouble sometimes finds them first. Just so long that isn’t the only way they end up in situations.