Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, states it concisely:
A common mistake in a lot of rough drafts is the problem of the inactive hero.
Not that I wasn't already aware that the main character in my YA Dystopian needed to grow some...man parts. I had that revelation a few weeks ago. But for some reason, when I read the above sentence, it really hit home. REALLY.
It's one of those things you don't necessarily "hear" in the feedback you're getting. Or if it's pointed out directly, it may not resonate. "What do you mean, my hero is inactive?! Did you see what he had to go through? All that angst and pain and fear and struggle?"
Well, yeah. But in the course of the story, did your hero propel things by his actions and decisions? Or was he sorta...dragged along?
It's ironic, really. My belief that I couldn't write a novel (being a self-proclaimed anecdotal essayist) was shattered as I read The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and thought, "This is bad. I think I could write a better story." My reason? The heroine is propelled through the entire story by external circumstances! Everything is convenient, pat, and painfully predictable.
It's accurate to say, I think, that the heroine really doesn't do anything except REACT. A truly disappointing read.
So what have I gone and done? I've written a novel with an inactive hero! Over the past eight months, I've received all sorts of feedback on the story, touching on everything from worldbuilding to character development to voice and back again. But woven throughout those comments was a thread of "Eric needs to be active" that I totally missed.
Here comes the bare-nekkid part--actual agent comments on my manuscript. Some of these are from revision requests and some are from rejections on fulls. One was even from an extreme-near-miss, I-almost-offered rejection. And ALL of them point to an inherent activity problem with my hero:
I found myself less engaged by the character.
It was difficult to concretely understand what the characters were fighting for.
I couldn't get Eric to resonate as a stand out for me. Part if this may have to do with his lack of evolution as a character.
I worry that you get to be almost half way through before you get a sense of where the book is going.
Eric never really has it out with Vann--you're kinda hoping at some point that they'd have a real conversation.
And my all-time favorite, which pretty much says it all:
Eric is inert the first half the book.
Well, she was right. One day, I'll tell her she was right. And thank her.
So now I've begun what can only be described as an exhilarating revision journey. Truly. Eric is going to DO things. Right from page one. As in, the story has opened and he's got a knife in his hand.
And it ain't a butter knife.
What about you? Is your hero the true leader he needs to be? And how can you be sure?
Blake Snyder offers a four-item check-list:
1. Is your hero's goal clearly stated in the set-up?
2. Do clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does he seek them out?
3. Is your hero active or passive?
4. Do other characters tell your hero what to do or does he tell them?
(And yes. I really do recommend you read the whole book. It's that good.)
No one wants to read a story with a main character who leaves us with a "what's the point of all this?" feeling. Action, fueled by clear motivation, will drive our main characters--and our readers!--compellingly through the story. We'll want to cheer for him. Because he'll deserve it.
Here's to your next, awesome, unstoppable hero!